SUEZ fined £500k after sewage fungus outbreak from landfill

SUEZ fined £500k after sewage fungus outbreak from landfill
Contaminated surface water was pumped onto nearby fields
Waste firm SUEZ recycling and recovery UK has been made to pay £505,000 in fines and costs after contaminated water from the company’s Connon Bridge landfill in Cornwall left two local waterways ‘smothered’ in sewage fungus.

Truro Crown Court heard last Friday (3 February), that the Environment Agency (EA) first became concerned with the handling of rising levels of contaminated water, called leachate, from the landfill near Liskeard in 2012. Officers reported that heavy rain had caused the leachate levels to rise quickly beyond the limits specified by the site’s environmental permit.

This was followed in 2013 by complaints from the public of ‘appalling odours’ caused by inadequately controlled emissions of landfill gas at the site, and reports that the landfill was seeping into two local streams.

When EA officers investigated in January 2013, they found that the Widowpath and Connon streams had been ‘smothered’ in sewage fungus, a mass of bacteria that is a sign of organic pollution, for a distance of approximately four kilometres.

Difficulty controlling site

The EA started monitoring the impact of the leachate spillages on the streams and concluded it was the worst outbreak of sewage fungus in the area for 20 years.

The agency says it was apparent that the site’s operator was struggling to regain control of the landfill, and a ‘lengthy and complex investigation’ that lasted four years found that there had been spillages of leachate onto uncontained areas of the site. Surface water had been contaminated by leachate, which had subsequently compromised the water quality in a groundwater drainage channel beneath the site.

The court heard that SUEZ resorted to pumping the contaminated water onto adjacent field in an attempt to remove the large volumes that were sitting on the site, an unauthorised method of disposal.

After pleading guilty to six offences under Environmental Permitting Regulations, the company was fined £180,000 and made to pay £325,000 in costs. Those offences were noted as: failure to comply with leachate level limits specified by an environmental permit; allowing leachate to overflow from a leachate extraction point; unauthorised emissions of contaminated water; failure to comply with water quality emission limits; failing to notify the EA; and causing odour pollution.

The EA explained that the high level of costs reflects the work and time that went into investigating and prosecuting the ‘complicated technical case’ over four years.

SUEZ fined after sewage fungus outbreak from landfill
Officers found that uncapped areas of the landfill contributed to the release of foul odour
‘Distress’ caused to local community

Simon Harry, of the Environment Agency, said: “People living close to Connon Bridge landfill will not have forgotten the appalling odours that emanated from this site in 2013. The negligent failings of the landfill operator resulted in pollution both by odour and to local watercourses. The judge in this case acknowledged, in particular, the distress caused to the local community by the odour.

“We take pollution incidents very seriously and this case should send a strong message to all industrial operators of the potential consequences of failing to take adequate steps to protect the environment.”

Operator ‘deeply regrets’ incident

A spokesperson for SUEZ said in a statement: ‘Like many other landfill sites around the country, Connon Bridge Landfill experienced issues managing leachate and landfill gas during the exceptionally wet weather conditions experienced throughout 2012.

‘We have not sought to shy away from these shortcomings and pleaded guilty to six of the 11 charges at the earliest opportunity, cooperating with the Environment Agency throughout its investigations and the subsequent court proceedings. We contested the remaining five charges and these were not pursued.

‘We deeply regret that, despite our best endeavours, we were unable to maintain full compliance at the site during 2012 and early 2013, but are pleased that the judge recognised that our overall compliance record, across our 211 operational sites (of which 11 are active landfill), around the country is good and we do our best to manage waste in compliance with our environmental permits.

‘We have taken steps to improve leachate management at the site in the event there should be a further period of prolonged heavy rainfall. These include reducing the size of the operational area, increasing the use of temporary capping to reduce rainfall entering the waste, upgrading the leachate treatment plant to improve the efficiency and the volume of leachate it can handle and increasing the dedicated extraction of leachate from gas wells.

‘We worked with the Environment Agency to bring Connon Bridge Landfill back into compliance and continue to work with the agency as we move towards the closure of the site by December 2018.’