Sonae UK fined £37,500 for polluting brook

6 October 2003

Chipboard manufacturer Sonae has been fined £37,500 for pollution offences relating to an explosion at its Knowsley plant in Merseyside.

Sonae UK Ltd pleaded guilty to a number of offences at Huyton Magistrates' Court last week. The company, which uses recycled wood to make chipboard products, was also ordered to pay £3,150 in costs to the Environment Agency, which brought the prosecution.

The court heard that an explosion occurred at the 50-acre Sonae site on June 1, 2002, which caused 20,000 litres of concentrated white wax emulsion to escape into the surface water drainage system and then into the Kirkby Brook. The pollution was made worse because of heavy rain.

A statement from the Environment Agency said: "On 3 June an Agency officer visited the site and saw that the outfall from Sonae’s premises was gushing a milky white liquid. Kirkby Brook was discoloured white for about two kilometres downstream, and still affected for at least a further two kilometres."

It continued: "Samples taken by the Agency revealed that the water in the brook was polluted to almost three times the strength of raw sewage. An ecology survey taken two days later showed that for at least 200 metres downstream, all life in the brook had been completely wiped out, and even as far as two and a half kilometres away the brook was classified as ‘grossly polluted’."

The Agency said that Sonae declined to carry out additional measures it had suggested to prevent the pollution re-occurring, and further discharges took place following the initial incident.

Unused wood
Pollution also occurred, the court heard, because production at the site stopped after the explosion until August 2002, leaving a large amount of unused wood to rot at the Knowsley site. To counter the internal heat produced by the rotting process, the company sprayed water on the material, which produced a "foul-smelling brown or black liquid" that was allowed to run directly into Kirkby brook.

The court heard that the Agency had suggested temporary measures to stop the discharge from occurring, and had explained that it was very important that these measures were closely monitored to ensure they continued to be effective. This did not happen, the Agency said, and on October 23, 2002, there was another discharge into the brook.

Tim Warn, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, told the court that all the incidents were foreseeable and could have been prevented. The shortcomings of the site’s drainage system were known to Sonae almost two years before the incidents.