A large marine paint manufacturing company has been fined £650,000 after a highly toxic banned chemical was washed from a holding tank into a ‘pristine’ river in south west England.
International Paint Ltd “completely failed” to control a substance called TBT that it had stored at its suspended plant on the banks of the Yealm in Devon, a judge has concluded.
An expert who tested water at Yealm, a Site of Special Scientific Interest renowned for its oysters and cockles, found that a sample near the plant contained 80,000 times the safe level of TBT.
TBT was used in antifouling paints for boats to retard the growth of barnacles and algae until they were banned worldwide in the 2000s because it is highly toxic to invertebrate animals. Mollusks are particularly sensitive to it.
International Paint was fined £650,000 and ordered to pay costs of £145,000. The company has agreed to cover the costs of the remediation work, which is likely to be at least £500,000.
Sentencing the company, owned by multinational AkzoNobel, registrar Simon Levene said it had stopped using TBT in 2002 and should have cleaned the tank years ago. He said he was “suspicious” that the download occurred after the site went up for sale.
The judge said: “Although I do not believe that anyone ordered the TBT to be removed from the tanks, it is suspicious that the TBT was only unloaded when a potential buyer arrived for whom the presence of TBT in the tanks was a serious problem.” along the.”
He added: “I am quite satisfied that the defendant, having closed his eyes for years to the problem, operated a reckless system in which he completely failed to control the management of TBT and other chemicals. I am satisfied that [a caretaker] they emptied the TBT into the estuary and that is something that should never have been allowed to happen.”
The judge, sitting in Plymouth crown court, also raised concerns about what he called “astronomical” levels of mercury that were also found in the river. The Food Standards Agency will investigate whether this could have entered the human food chain via shellfish.
International Paint Ltd had denied two charges relating to the discharge of hazardous waste from a quayside tanker at its Newton Ferrers paint testing facility, but was found guilty by a jury.
The court heard that the Environment Agency launched an investigation after the company tried to sell the premises and possible contamination was reported.
International Paint Ltd had operated a test facility at Yealm on Newton Creek near Newton Ferrers since 1928. The company stopped using TBT in the early 2000s and the site was decommissioned in 2013. But TBT and other chemicals did not they were approved, and in 2016 the caretaker dumped the contents into the river. The judge said the river had been a “pristine environment” before the incident.
Dr. Michael Waldock, an expert whose work led to the TBT ban, found that nine of the 11 samples exceeded the safe limit for TBT, and that one sample near the site contained 80,000 times the safe level. He concluded that the TBT levels were sufficient to have had a major toxic effect on marine life there.
A report filed with the court revealed that data collected in December 2022 showed that there was “little or no reduction in TBT concentrations near the International Paint site…The TBT waste reservoir is very persistent and will continue to release TBT to the sediment for many more years.” However, he did say that the contamination did not appear to have spread widely in the estuary.
International Paint Limited said it took full responsibility for the incident. A spokesman, Ralph Slikkerveer, said: “We take our environmental obligations very seriously. The company has been in operation for more than 120 years and has no prior environmental convictions or warnings.
“We have been working closely with the Marine Management Organization and are investigating steps to remediate the contamination.”