Fish Legal highlights UK’s low pollution payouts after US firm fined $3.3million
The expert environmental and angling lawyers at Fish Legal, who act on behalf of over 1,000 angling clubs throughout the UK, have highlighted the low level of fines paid by offenders in the UK for polluting watercourses. Fish Legal has this week written to the Sentencing Council welcoming its proposals for tougher pollution penalties, particularly for large companies, but urging it to go much further.
This coincided with news from the USA of a paper company being fined a total of $3.3 million for polluting the Pearl River in Louisiana, killing 160,000 fish. This is many times greater than the amount that would be currently possible in the UK.
Even under the Sentencing Council’s beefed-up proposals, the absolute maximum fine for the same offence in the UK would be £2 million, although an early guilty plea could reduce that. Fish Legal’s lawyers have repeatedly seen multi-national companies fined a few thousand pounds for offences that cause significant and long-term damage to the water environment and to fisheries.
It points out that if we are effectively to deter, punish and remove financial gain from offenders, then the range of fines must go much higher for big business polluters. Water and sewage companies are some of the worst repeat offenders and this is because it ‘pays to pollute’ – some of them would rather pay a fine than spend many millions more on upgrading their infrastructure. This financial gain needs to be removed so they are incentivised to respect the environment and stop polluting.
Fish Legal, which acts as the legal arm of the Angling Trust in England, has called for the Council to:
• Increase the levels of maximum and minimum fines still further
• Include absolute minimum levels for fines
• Remove upper limits for the most serious offences and remove financial gain
• Ensure that companies are properly assessed for their ability to pay – the bigger the company, the higher the fine
• Extend the review of offences to include the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, so prosecutors focus on the injury caused to fish and not just technical breaches of permits
• Take into account the cumulative impact of multiple minor pollution incidents that still seriously affect biodiversity
• Ensure that it is not cheaper to pollute and pay the fine than to invest in pollution prevention measures and remain within the law
• Take into account the previous record of a company, including offences which were not prosecuted
• Consider the impact of water pollution on the amenity value for angling
• Ensure that angling clubs and those who own or lease fishing rights are consulted about any measures to pay compensation or take remedial action
• Hear evidence from angling interests and others directly affected by pollution when determining the level of fines.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal said: “We welcome the Sentencing Council’s proposals but urge them to go further to provide a really powerful deterrent to those who spill toxic waste into the water environment. Anglers are fed up with seeing corporate fat cats walking away from the courts with little more than a slap on the wrist for polluting rivers, lakes and coastlines. The health of these waters is vital for the well-being of everyone in the country, and particularly for several million anglers and the angling industry, which employs 37,000 people.”
William Rundle, head solicitor at Fish Legal, said: “Pollution is endemic throughout the UK with farmers and water companies causing some of the worst damage to water bodies in the country. Pollution affects us all, it causes untold damage to the environment, creates public health risks, and damages the private interests of others. It is, frankly, scandalous that the justice system imposes such small fines and sentencing needs to get much tougher. To a large extent it depends on the Environment Agency doing better investigations and putting accurate information before the courts that shows the full impact of pollution on the environment and those directly affected, such as anglers.”