Updated Mar 6, 2023

Paint company fined £650,000 after water pollution

A paint manufacturing company, International Paint Ltd, whose parent company is AkzoNobel, has been found guilty of causing pollution to the Yealm estuary with various hazardous substances, including tributyltin (TBT), copper, mercury, and arsenic, leading to a £650,000 fine.

Since 1928, International Paint Ltd specialised in manufacturing maritime paints, including anti-fouling paints for ships and had run a testing facility on the River Yealm at Newton Creek. The company also used paints containing TBT as a coating to prevent the build-up of animals, such as barnacles, on the ships' hulls. That substance was banned to use on small vessels in the 1980s due to the extreme toxicity to the wider marine environment, with a complete ban on the use of this substance coming into force worldwide during the 2000s. According to the Environment Agency, a single drop of TBT dropped into an Olympic size pool is one part per trillion, where a safe level of TBT in water is 0.2 part per trillion, equalling to a fifth of a drop.

During a lengthy investigation by the Environment Agency, it was found that between 2 September 2015 and 27 October 2016, International Paints Ltd caused an unauthorised discharge of chemicals into the waterways causing water pollution, which the company denied.

After ceasing the operations in 2013, the company tried to sell the premises in 2015. The Environment Agency then launched an investigation to determine the source of pollution that was reported in the area recently. The investigation found that TBT was present in the sediment of a tank that was present on the site and evidence that some of the sediment had escaped out into the estuary. Following a laboratory review of the sample analysis from the estuary, it was found that 9 out of the 11 samples collected in the area exceeded safe levels of TBT, and samples collected the closest to the site contained 80,000 times the safe level.

It was concluded that the TBT levels in the estuary were sufficient to have the potential for a major toxic effect on marine life. 

Sentencing the company at Plymouth Crown Court, the judge said: "Though I don’t believe anybody directed the TBT should be washed out of the tanks, it is suspicious that the TBT was only discharged when a potential purchaser for whom the presence of TBT in the tanks was a serious problem came along.

"I am quite satisfied that the defendant, having closed its eyes for years to the problem, operated a reckless system in which it utterly failed to control the management of TBT and other chemicals. I’m satisfied that [a caretaker] emptied the TBT into the estuary and that is something that should never have been allowed to happen."

The judge also raised concerns regarding other pollutants found on site, including "astronomic" levels mercury, which could enter the food chain via shellfish.

After the hearing, the company was fined £650,000 and ordered to pay costs of £144,992 for failing to take the necessary measures to prevent the release of pollution under the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As part of the sentencing, the company also agreed to pay for the remediation works to clear up the pollution, which is likely to cost at least £500,000.