Pollution: huge drop in prosecutions of companies for environmental crime as charity warns cuts have left watchdog toothless

As part of a week-long series into environmental prosecutions in England and Scotland, NationalWorld can reveal how prosecutions have dropped significantly amid warnings over budget cuts.

Oil and petrol leaks, human sewage in rivers, radioactive waste, fly-tipping – these are just a few of the shocking reasons thousands of companies and individuals have been prosecuted for environmental crimes in England and Scotland.

But new analysis by NationalWorld can reveal that prosecutions have fallen off a cliff edge in recent years, leading to fears that ”savage” government cuts have left lawbreaking polluters escaping punishment.

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Enforcement options for crimes include verbal written warnings, enforcement and compliance notices, formal cautions, prosecution or civil sanctions.
Enforcement options for crimes include verbal written warnings, enforcement and compliance notices, formal cautions, prosecution or civil sanctions.

Charities have slammed the findings with one leading environmental group saying without greater government funding, the Environment Agency – the public body responsible for protecting the environment and prosecuting offenders in England – will “remain a watchdog with severely blunted teeth”.

It follows an admission by the agency late last year that it did not have enough money to carry out its enforcement work.

Crimes against the environment

According to official Environment Agency data analysed by NationalWorld, prosecutions of companies and organisations for environmental crime in England plummeted 86% between 2000 and 2019. The number of charges also fell by 84% during the same period. A single prosecution could involve multiple charges.

Thousands of companies have been prosecuted for environmental crime since the year 2000.

In 2000 there were 270 prosecutions and 503 charges. This dropped to 37 prosecutions and 80 charges in 2019.

Between January 2000 and May 2020, the agency prosecuted companies and organisations nearly 4,000 times, which included almost 10,000 environmental crime charges, resulting in fines totalling £88.7 million. The fines do not include costs awarded to the Environment Agency or other fines accrued, such as for non-environmental charges.

The analysis excludes more than 11,000 charges made to individuals, for whom dates and names are withheld.

A similar problem in Scotland

Analysis of data obtained through an Environmental Regulation Information request sent to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) found a similar pattern in Scotland.

The figures show prosecutions, including against individuals, plummeted by 90% between 2000 and 2019.

In 2000 there were 49 prosecutions but in 2019, there were just five.

In total, 567 individuals, companies and organisations were prosecuted between January 2000 and June 2020 by SEPA. This resulted in £2.6 million worth of fines.

Fifteen were found not guilty, 550 were found guilty and two had other outcomes.

‘Free rein to pollute’

Despite the drop in prosecutions, other data suggests that some types of environmental crime are not reducing. Recent figures from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show fly-tipping incidents in England in 2019/20 increased 2% on 2018/19, with local authorities dealing with just under 1 million incidents.

Charity Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs said the Environment Agency needs a significant cash injection if it is to tackle corporate polluters.

He said: “The Environment Agency has endured savage cuts in government funding over the past decade, which has significantly constrained its ability to monitor our rivers and prosecute polluters.

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“If the Government is serious about restoring nature and protecting our rivers it must listen to calls from the Environment Agency chair, Emma Howard-Boyd, for more money, and use the forthcoming spending review to significantly boost funding.

“Without more cash the Environment Agency will remain a watchdog with severely blunted teeth, and corporate polluters will continue to have free rein to pollute.”

NationalWorld approached leading Scottish charities including Friends of the Earth Scotland but all declined to comment on SEPA’s prosecution figures.

‘Shocking statistics’

Emma Montlake, case director of the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), echoed Friends of the Earth's position on funding.

Ms Montlake said: “These are shocking statistics but are reflected in the situation on the ground and in our heavily polluted inland and coastal waters

“The drop in prosecutions appears to tie in with the massive drop in central funding of the Environment Agency and sadly as a consequence of this ELF is seeing an erosion in the trust of the public that the regulator is able to do its job properly.”

Last year the Environment Agency admitted it did not have enough money to carry out its enforcement work, according to a letter obtained by The Times newspaper.

Major and significant environmental harm

NationalWorld can also reveal that thousands of incidents of pollution have caused significant harm to the environment.

Each individual charge in England is categorised by the extent of harm caused to water, air, or land environments. A single charge could cause harm to multiple environments.

For the almost 10,000 charges involving organisations since January 2020, there were almost 30,000 incidents of harm recorded. Of these:

357 resulted in a major, serious, persistent or extensive impact on the environment, people or property 1,738 resulted in a significant impact or effect 2,850 resulted in a minor or minimal impact 22,734 were substantiated incidents with no impact

‘A full range of enforcement options’

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously. Where there is evidence, the Environment Agency uses a full range of enforcement options ranging from advice and guidance through to prosecution.”

The Environment Agency said enforcement options for crimes include verbal written warnings, enforcement and compliance notices, formal cautions, prosecution or civil sanctions such as Enforcement Undertakings.

The spokesperson added: “We know the impact major pollution incidents can have and, while water quality has improved dramatically over the last decade, we are committed to improving it further. So far in 2021 the EA has concluded three prosecutions against water companies with fines of £90 million, £4 million and £2.3 million.”

The Environment Agency said prosecution numbers may be affected by factors outside the agency’s control, including lack of cooperation during complex investigations and defence challenges to legal proceedings.

‘It’s right we’re held to account for our record’

Chris Dailly, head of environmental performance at SEPA, said there are various enforcement actions SEPA can use to keep the environment safe.

Mr Dailly said: “It is important to remember that by the time a case is submitted to the Procurator Fiscal the harmful behaviour or environmental damage has already happened. Where our enforcement work prevents this from happening, that should be seen as a success.

“Prosecutions are only one tool in a package of measures which SEPA can deploy, often in partnership with others, to achieve positive outcomes for Scotland’s environment, economy and communities. Over recent years we have increased the use of new powers to issue civil penalties and this may be partly responsible for the reduction in the number of cases referred to the procurator fiscal from 25 in 2015 to eight in 2020.

“As a public agency it’s right that we’re held to account for our record. It’s right that we recognise the significant progress made in protecting and enhancing Scotland’s environment and that we match available resources to where they matter most. We’ll continue our firm focus on tackling both the most serious non-compliance and local concerns of communities across Scotland.”

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