Environment: Why the polluters are rarely brought to book

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Companies regularly break the legal limits for the quantities of pollution they can pour into Britain's rivers and sea. But why are these firms, several of them household names, hardly ever prosecuted for such breaches? Nicholas Schoon reports on Friends of the Earth's complaint against the Government's green watchdog.

A firm found pumping out more pollution than it is legally entitled to has less than a one in a hundred chance of being prosecuted by the Government's Environment Agency, Friends of the Earth has found. It fears the regulator is too close to the regulated, saying agency officials sometimes refer to polluting companies as ``customers'' in speeches and print.

Every company emitting potentially harmful chemicals into waterways and the sea must have official consent from the agency, which sets down maximum limits. The Friends asked for full records of how many times these were breached over a 12-month period starting in October 1995, excluding water and sewage companies.

The agency, covering England and Wales, charged pounds 1,573 for the information. There were 2,152 breaches at 830 sites, including food factories, fish farms and airports. Among the biggest names were Nestle, Cadbury, McCain Foods and Trebor Bassett. The agency launched only 17 prosecutions for the breaches. Campaigner Mike Childs said: ``The agency's record of prosecutions is hopeless ... the Government should tell them to act as a tough watchdog.'' The investigation also showed big differences in apparent willingness to prosecute between the agency's regions.

The Midlands had 20 per cent of breaches but took no one to court; the Thames region had 5 per cent but launched a quarter of prosecutions.

The agency said most breaches were ``of no environmental significance.'' Each year 40,000 samples of polluting outputs were taken, and only 5 per cent were over the limit.

By coincidence, the agency had a big courtroom success yesterday. John Moynihan, director of a hospital waste disposal company, Green Environmental Industries, was jailed for 18 months by St Alban's Crown Court for illegal storage of clinical waste.

Among 100 tonnes of rubbish were used syringes and scalpels, body tissue and amputated limbs.