pounds 300,000 slap on wrist for ICI after toxic leak

BRITAIN'S biggest chemical company received its largest-ever fine in the UK yesterday, after 150 tonnes of toxic chloroform gushed out of a pipe and polluted groundwater for decades, and perhaps for centuries.

The Government's Environment Agency was delighted with the pounds 300,000 fine against ICI, saying it sent a clear signal to boardrooms that pollution did not pay. But even though it is Britain's second biggest fine for any pollution crime, it is less than one tenth of one per cent of the group's pre-tax worldwide profits.

The leak was only discovered when a contractor spotted a three-foot high fountain of chloroform gushing from a broken filter in a pipe at ICI Chemicals and Polymers sprawling site at Runcorn, Cheshire. The escape, which happened in broad daylight, went undiscovered for four-and-a-half hours in April last year.

''This was a careless incident which caused serious environmental damage,'' said the environment agency's chief executive, Ed Gallagher.

''I hope the scale of today's fine is an indication that the courts are beginning to understand the impact of what industry does when it pollutes the environment.''

Warrington Crown Court was told that as well as polluting the Weston Canal and nearby River Weaver, 123 tonnes of the chloroform sank into the ground.

There is a chance that several decades from now it could pollute a drinking water borehole four miles away at Frodsham.

The maximum concentration allowed in drinking water is 100 parts per billion.

The chloroform, made for use in refrigerators, can cause unconsciousness and prolonged exposure causes kidney and liver damage. There were no reports of people living or working nearby suffering any ill effects.

ICI pleaded guilty to causing pollution and not keeping its equipment in good operating condition, and was ordered to pay pounds 51,200 compensation and costs. Judge David Hale said adequate risk assessments had not been carried out and there had not been proper monitoring of chloroform flow in the pipeline which would have alerted ICI to the problem.

A company spokesman said: ''We're sorry it happened and we're taking all steps to make sure nothing like this happens again. We thought the fine would be a big one.''

ICI hopes the court case will end a sorry chapter of pollution bungles which damaged its reputation last year.

Escapes of hazardous gases and liquids at several plants led to prosecutions. A 'hit squad' of six Environment Agency pollution inspectors was sent into its Runcorn plant to carry out an emergency audit of company procedures last May following three serious incidents, including the chloroform escape.

The largest pollution fine in Britain was pounds 1 million, imposed on Shell UK after a massive oil pipeline leak seriously polluted the Mersey Estuary in 1989.