Pollution is a crime which can have numerous victims including the people, numerous species and even the future generations. Whether it is a release of raw sewage into a river or the ocean, an oil spill or a cloud of gas that is deemed toxic into the air, the public has interest in seeing those who caused the pollution to get punished.
For years, courts have been soft on those who cause pollution, especially on massive corporations as they are hesitant to give harsh punishments. But recently, it looks like large fines have been common in the United Kingdom for corporations who had done environmental crimes.
In March 2019, the company Severn Trent Water was fined around 500,000 British pounds for spilling thousands of gallons of raw sewage in Birmingham park. It was the latest case of expensive court battles for water companies over the last five years.
In 2014, the Court of Appeal gave a 250,000 British pound fine to Thames Water after the illegal discharge of sewage materials into a stream in North Wessex Downs. In 2015, United Utilities was fined 750,000 British pounds after the company’s pumping failure that resulted in a raw sewage spill into the Duddon Estuary in Cumbria.
In 2016, Thames Water was charged again as they illegally emitted sewage debris and sludge into the Grand Union Canal. They were charged 1 million British pounds and their record lasted for more than a year. In 2017, they were charged with emitting around 1.4 billion liters of raw sewage into the river Thames and they were fined 20 million British pounds.
These massive fines just show a change in the way that the courts have responded to environmental crimes that are committed by large corporations. It is a change that is followed after the introduction in 2014 of the specific sentencing guidelines for offences in the environment which gives a set of considerations to a judge and what they must take into account when they sentence an environmental offender.
The guidelines include the culpability of the environmental offender, the level of harm caused and the financial means of the offender. If you are a massive utility company that caused a significant environmental harm, then you can expect hard justice to be served.
There is now a move towards stricter and larger penalties for polluters and they have created an incentive for those who will come forward and report environmental crimes. An enforcement undertaking was also made, which is a legally binding agreement between a regulator and an offender. This forces an offender to take steps to cease any illegal activity that can cause harm to the environment and to make changes to its operations.
Since 2011, the Environmental Agency has accepted around 300 enforcement undertakings and they have collected around 13 million British pounds in payments to community groups and environmental organizations.