Penalties of a few thousand pounds are no deterrent to multi-million pound companies, said Ed Gallagher, the agency's chief executive, who said the "going rate" for fines for chemical pollutants averages about pounds 2,000 per tonne of pollution.
He told the agency's annual meeting in London that 600 pollution-related cases were taken to court by the agency in 1997-98, a 16 per cent increase, but their impact was undermined by the lack of severe penalties.
"Whether they be a multi- national company or just an unscrupulous individual, last year's enforcement record clearly shows the agency will not tolerate any polluters. However, this tough approach needs to be matched by the courts."
The biggest fine in a pollution case brought by the agency was pounds 300,000 imposed on ICI in March for polluting ground-water with chloroform at a plant at Runcorn, Cheshire.
Other penalties were much lower. Wessex Water polluted the marina at Weymouth, Dorset, last year with a million gallons of sewage. Pleading guilty when prosecuted in May, the company - profits last year pounds 130m - was ordered to pay pounds 5,250 in fines and costs.
At the Environment Agency AGM yesterday its chairman, Lord De Ramsey, came under attack from Friends of the Earth for selling his farmland for housing and allowing it to be used to test genetically modified crops.
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