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February 8, 2011

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Chemical firm fined over sewer leak

Chemical manufacturer Scott Bader has been prosecuted by the Environment Agency after a hydrocarbon leaked into a sewer at its facility in Northamptonshire.

In April 2010, Anglian Water received complaints of strong smells coming from a sewer close to the firm’s Wollaston Hall site, near Wellingborough. When officers from the water company visited the factory they found an oily substance in sewer water at the site.

Anglian Water notified the Environment Agency that it believed a chemical had leaked into the sewer, which prompted the Agency to launch an investigation. Subsequent tests on the water found that xylene was present in the sewer. Investigators identified that the chemical had leaked into the sewer via a surface water drain, also known as a bund.

Environment Agency officer Kevin Burton explained that acidic vapours from one of the reactor vessels at the chemical plant had been escaping through a faulty butterfly valve into a fusion tank, which was not designed to cope with such chemicals. The valve was meant to isolate the reactor system from the fusion system, but the vapours corroded a section of pipe, creating a hole of 5-10mm diameter. When the reactor vessel was pressurised, the xylene and water mist was forced out through the hole, into the pipe, and leaked into the bund, before entering the sewer.

Officer Burton revealed that the incident could have been avoided if better management systems were in place for inspecting the integrity of bunds, and if the firm had carried out an adequate risk assessment. He said: “This incident has highlighted the importance for companies to thoroughly assess the risks from all of their activities. It is also vitally important that key environmental protection systems, such as bunds, are inspected and maintained to the highest standard, ready to contain leaks or spillage at any time.”

Scott Bader had an environmental permit that set a limit for an emission of xylene into the sewer of 100 parts per million. Subsequent tests of the water found the concentration of the chemical was 3900 parts per million. It is estimated that 50 litres of the chemical mix had leaked into the bund, although only half a litre went into the sewer.

Scott Bader Ltd appeared at Wellingborough Magistrates’ Court on 3 February and pleaded guilty to breaching reg. 38(2) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010, for contravening its environmental permit. It was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £7656 in costs.

In mitigation, the company said it entered an early guilty plea and cooperated with the investigation. It has subsequently removed the fusion process equipment, repaired the bund, and has planned improvements to the surface-water drainage system on the site.

In 2007, Scott Bader was fined £35,000 for offences that took place in 2005 when a cloud of smoke escaped from its premises affecting several nearby homes. No members of the public experienced any health effects.

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