A major marine paint manufacturing company has been fined £650,000 after a highly toxic banned chemical leaked from a holding tank into a ‘pristine’ river in South West England.
International Paint Ltd “completely failed” to control a substance called TBT which it had stored in its mothballed factory on the banks of the Yealm in Devon, a judge has found.
An expert who tested the water in the 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 on ships to slow the growth of barnacles and algae until it was banned worldwide in the 2000s because it is highly toxic to invertebrate animals. Molluscs are particularly sensitive to it.
International Paint was fined £650,000 and costs £145,000. The company has agreed to cover the costs of the remediation work, which is likely to be at least £500,000.
Condemning the company, which is owned by multinational AkzoNobel, logger Simon Levene said it stopped using TBT in 2002 and should have cleaned the tank years ago. He said he was “suspicious” the dump happened after the site went on sale.
The judge said: “While I do not believe anyone ordered the TBT to be washed from the tanks, it is suspicious that the TBT was only unloaded when a potential buyer for whom the presence of TBT in the tanks was a serious problem came over.”
He added: “I am quite satisfied that the defendant, having turned a blind eye for years to the problem, operated a reckless system in which he totally failed to control the management of TBT and other chemicals. I’m satisfied that [a caretaker] emptied the TBT into the estuary and this is something that should never have happened.
The judge, sitting at Plymouth Crown Court, also raised concerns about what he called the “astronomical” levels of mercury that were also found in the river. The Food Standards Agency is to investigate whether it could have entered the human food chain via shellfish.
International Paint Ltd had denied two counts relating to the discharge of hazardous waste from a tank on the dock at its Newton Ferrers paint testing facility, but was found guilty by a jury.
The court heard the Environment Agency launched an investigation after the company tried to sell the premises and reports of possible pollution were reported.
International Paint Ltd had operated a test facility on the Yealm at Newton Creek near Newton Ferrers since 1928. The company stopped using TBT in the early 2000s and the site was decommissioned in 2013. But the TBT and other chemicals were not cleared, and in 2016 the keeper dumped the contents into the river. The judge said the river was a ‘pristine environment’ before the incident.
Dr Michael Waldock, an expert whose work led to the banning of TBT, found that nine out of 11 samples exceeded the safe limit for TBT and that one sample near the site contained 80,000 times the level of security. He concluded that the levels of TBT were sufficient to have had a major toxic effect on marine life there.
A report presented to the court found that data collected in December 2022 showed that there had been “little or no reduction in TBT concentrations near the International Paint site…The TBT debris reservoir is very persistent and it will continue to release TBT to sediments for many years to come. However, he said the pollution 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 business for over 120 years and has no prior environmental beliefs or caveats.
“We have worked closely with the Marine Management Organization and are exploring measures to address the contamination.”