Punishing The Polluters: Why Large Fines Are An Important Step Towards Cleaner Corporations

Punishing The Polluters: Why Large Fines Are An Important Step Towards Cleaner Corporations

Ripple effect. Shutterstock

Polluting the environment is a crime which can have countless victims – of numerous species and future generations. Whether it’s an oil spill in the sea, a release of raw sewage into a river, or a cloud of toxic gas into the air, the public has a clear interest in seeing criminal acts of pollution punished.

For a long time, courts have often been seen as soft on polluters, hesitating to penalise environmental criminals harshly. Yet recently, it seems that large fines against corporations have become increasingly common in the UK.

In March 2019, Severn Trent Water was fined £500,000 for spilling thousands of gallons of raw sewage in a Birmingham park. It was the latest in a series of expensive court appearances for water companies over the last half decade.

In 2014, the Court of Appeal handed a £250,000 fine to Thames Water, following the illegal discharge of untreated sewage materials into a stream in the North Wessex Downs. A year later, United Utilities was fined £750,000 after a pumping failure resulted in a raw sewage spill into the protected Duddon Estuary in Cumbria.

In 2016, Thames Water found itself in the dock again for illegally emitting sewage debris and sludge into the Grand Union Canal. It received a record £1m fine – a record which lasted little more than a year. In 2017, the same company was charged with emitting an estimated 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage into the river Thames and fined £20m.

These large fines represent a visible change in the way courts have responded to environmental crimes committed by large corporations. It is a change which followed the introduction in 2014 of specific sentencing guidelines for environmental offences, which provide a set of considerations a judge must take into account when sentencing an environmental offender.

They include the culpability of the offender, the level of environmental harm caused, and the offender’s financial means. Evidence from the Sentencing Council indicates that the median fine levied against corporate offenders has more than doubled since they were introduced.

So does this mean environmental criminals can now expect hard justice when committing environmental crimes? Sometimes, yes – at least if you are a large utility company causing significant environmental harm. But there are several reasons to think the impact of the fines might be limited.

First, the evidence compiled by the Sentencing Council suggests no spike in the level of fines handed down to individual (non-corporate) criminal offenders. This could mean that severe penalties are not applied to every transgressor.

Second, the increase in severity of fines has taken place against a drop in the overall number of prosecutions brought by the Environment Agency.

Third, many of the companies in charge of Britain’s crumbling water utility infrastructure are large companies which generate hefty profits. The £20m fine against Thames Water amounts to less than two weeks’ worth of the company’s profits. Is that an inadequate deterrent?

Yet on the positive side, a move towards stricter penalties does create an incentive for polluters to come forward and report accidental, yet criminal, environmental harm to the Environment Agency. By doing so, they can enter into a so-called “enforcement undertaking”, a legally binding agreement between an offender and a regulator. In these, an offender aims to take certain steps to cease illegal activities which cause environmental harm, and promises to make specific changes to its operations.

Since being made available in 2011, the Environment Agency has accepted over 300 enforcement undertakings, and collected more than £13m in payments to environmental organisations and community groups.

Money talks

Importantly, almost all enforcement undertakings agreed by the Environment Agency include provisions for compensation to third parties affected as a result of the crime or for charitable donations to be made to environmental organisations. An example of this was when after the spillage of raw sewage in County Durham, Northumbrian Water paid £135,000 to three local environmental charities.

From an offender’s perspective, there is much to like in an enforcement undertaking, which can avoid the stigma and reputational damage of a criminal sentence. Similarly, they are popular with the Environment Agency which is able to save on the costs of a criminal prosecution. The undertakings also allow for the community affected by pollution to receive some kind of financial compensation.

These positive developments notwithstanding, there are risks associated with the widespread use of enforcement undertakings. We don’t know, for example, what the £13m in payments to environmental organisations is actually spent on, as there is no public scrutiny or accountability mechanism overseeing this. Nor do we know how negotiations between the Environment Agency and a polluter are conducted.

These limitations, however, might not be reason enough to limit the use of enforcement undertakings which are generally seen as a cost-effective and informal way of securing compliance.

Importantly, as Brexit will fundamentally alter the legal landscape for environmental protection, the need for innovative and effective action is likely to increase. The combination of heavy fines and negotiable enforcement undertakings provides a solid foundation from which to respond to those changes.The Conversation

About The Author

Ole Pedersen, Reader in Environmental Law, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

InnerSelf Market

Amazon

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
by Johnna Crider
Plains, Georgia, is a small town that is just south of Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta and north of Albany. It is the…
Majority of US Adults Believe Climate Change Is Most Important Issue Today
by American Psychological Association
As the effects of climate change become more evident, more than half of U.S. adults (56%) say climate change is the…
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
by Mangulina Jan Fichtner, et al
A silent revolution is happening in investing. It is a paradigm shift that will have a profound impact on corporations,…

LATEST ARTICLES

Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here
Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here Now
by Tim Radford
Lethal heatwaves carrying air turned too hot and wet to survive are a threat which has arrived, thanks to climate…
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
by Paul Brown
A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never…
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
by Pep Canadell, et al
The numbers of people cycling and walking in public spaces during COVID-19 has skyrocketed.
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
by Jennifer M.T. Magel and Julia K. Baum
Despite the many challenges facing the world’s oceans today, coral reefs remain strongholds of marine biodiversity.
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
by Eoin Higgins
Hurricane season is about to start and its risks will only grow and potentially compound any impacts from the pandemic.
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
by Quentin Grafton et al
There’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
by Kieran Cooke
Renewable energy is making rapid inroads into the market, but fossil fuels still wield enormous global influence.
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
by Tim Radford
Sea levels will go on rising, because of human action. By how much, though, depends on what humans do next.