The record £4m fine imposed on Milford Haven Port Authority for causing the Sea Empress oil tanker disaster was drastically reduced to £750,000 by the Court of Appeal yesterday.
The authority had argued that the fine, four times higher than the previous largest imposed for pollution, was "far in excess of that which was proper or fair". It put the whole viability of the authority at risk, the court was told. The Sea Empress ran aground at the entrance to Milford Haven estuary in February 1996, spilling 72,000 tonnes of crude oil in an area famous for its birdlife and natural beauty. The accident followed a navigational error by an inexperienced port authority pilot.
It contaminated 120 miles of Welsh coastline, and the clean-up operation cost £60m. The fine was imposed at Cardiff Crown Court in January last year. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, said in judgment that the appeal court fully appreciated the trial judge's reasons for regarding the spillage as a very serious case calling for a substantial penalty.
But the judge had failed to give full credit to the authority's plea of guilty, and had also failed to consider the possible impact of the £4m fine on the authority's ability to perform its public functions, he said. Sitting with Mr Justice Alliott and Mr Justice Newman, he added: "We also conclude that he took much too rosy a view of the financial position and prospects of the authority."
He said the fine was "manifestly excessive" and must be at a level which recognised the seriousness of such disasters but not enough to cripple the authority's business.