Hit squad tackles ICI over spills

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A hit squad of pollution inspectors was sent into a huge ICI chemicals plant yesterday following three serious incidents in which dangerous chemicals were spilled.

In taking this unprecedented action, the Government's Environment Agency demonstrated that it has deep worries about ICI's standards of management at its Runcorn plant in Cheshire.

The multi-disciplinary team of six inspectors will spend about a fortnight at the plant on the Mersey estuary, carrying out an urgent review of ICI's procedures for avoiding chemical spillages and pollution.

"These were three significant incidents, and there have been several other lesser ones," said George Ager, area manager for the agency. "We're taking this very seriously."

Yesterday the agency also announced it will prosecute ICI for one of the spillages, and is considering prosecution for another of them. The company was fined pounds 15,000 by local magistrates in March for the third, when a third of a tonne of ethylene dichloride spilt out of a tank due to operator error.

The other two spillages involved effluent from the vinylidene chloride process, which polluted a nearby canal, and a massive spillage of 150 tonnes of chloroform which is still being recovered.

The Runcorn plant is one of ICI's two largest in the country. It is two- and-a-half miles long, employs 1,400 people and celebrates its centenary this year.

It makes a wide variety of basic, chlorine containing chemicals in bulk and an ozone-friendly substitute for CFCs. The Environment Agency has authorised 14 separate, major processes at the single site, which means it has had to be satisfied that overall pollution and the risk of accidents is minimised for each of them.

Gaining these authorisations involved detailed scrutiny of the management, day-to-day procedures and engineering of each process - as well as ICI agreeing to keep emissions below agreed levels.

A spokeswoman for ICI in the North-west, Kay Duvall, said the company promised to work closely with the agency in its review. "We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously, and we welcome their intention to review our management systems."