The new sentencing guidelines for environmental offences (in force since July 2014) can lead to significant fines for companies – as shown by a recent case involving a house builder.

Miller Homes was fined £100,000 on 19 May 2016 for water pollution offences. The offence involved the unauthorised discharge of water containing silt and sediment from a housing development site into a nearby watercourse. A contractor working for Miller Homes, Flannery Civil Engineering Ltd, was also fined for its involvement in the incident.

The incident occurred at Lindley Park, Huddersfield, in November 2013. Miller Homes contracted with Flannery for the construction of four storage lagoons to reduce the risk of flooding downstream. During construction of the lagoons, straw bales were used on the outflow of the lower lagoon to prevent silt from leaving the site. However, the bales were removed following heavy rain, when the lower lagoon became full of water. By removing the bales, Flannery allowed the silt water to run directly into a nearby watercourse that runs into Grimescar Dyke. Upon inspection, the Environment Agency found that the watercourse had turned a dark brown colour.

Silt and sediment can have a significant impact on the overall water quality, decreasing clarity, reducing plant growth, blanketing spawning grounds and harming invertebrates leading to significant environmental damage. Long-term sedimentation also increases the risk of flooding potentially causing damage to third parties downstream.

Miller Homes admitted the offence and, as well as the £100,000 fine, was also ordered to pay £2,415.03 in costs.

In recent years, the courts have shown that they are more willing to hand out higher fines and order custodial sentences. Fines for environmental prosecutions are likely to continue to increase.