On 18 May 2016 housing developer Miller Homes Ltd was fined £100,000 by Leeds Crown Court for its involvement in the pollution of a watercourse near Huddersfield.  The case is an important warning for developers of the high fines they may face if they, or their contractors, fail to put in place the right processes to ensure that they comply with environmental legislation.

The pollution incident occurred in November 2013 when Miller’s contractor, Flannery Civil Engineering Limited, allowed polluted water from the construction site to drain into Grimescar Dyke.  Flannery had been contracted to build storage lagoons to hold and filter run-off water from the construction site.  Flannery had used straw bales to filter out silt from the water but, after heavy rainfall, decided to remove the filter bails allowing silt water to run directly into the Grimescar Dyke. 

Discharges of run-off water from construction sites to sewers or to watercourses are controlled by law and require consent from the local sewerage undertaker or an environment permit from the Environment Agency. It is a criminal offence for a developer to discharge run-off water to the sewer or to a watercourse without the required consent or permit.  The Environment Agency said that “Miller Homes should have had more effective water management systems on the construction site to prevent the silty run-off from affecting local watercourses.”  The fact that Miller Homes had engaged a contractor to manage its run-off water was not sufficient for Miller Homes to be compliant with the law.  Miller Homes itself still had a legal responsibility. 

Miller Homes’ fine of £100,000 (plus Environment Agency investigation costs of £2,901.03) is just the latest in a series of increasingly large environmental fines under the new Environmental Sentencing Guidelines.  Earlier this year, water company Thames Water and waste company Powerday Plc were each ordered to pay fines of £1m for environmental offences.  The Courts must now take into account the size of a business’ turnover which means that large organisations can face genuinely big fines. 

All businesses should take a fresh look at environmental compliance because the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe.  They should do the following:

  • Ensure that their sub-contracts are structured and managed in such a way as to minimise liability;
  • Have an incident response plan in place to ensure that the immediate response to an incident minimises the environmental and commercial impact of the incident.