International Paint has been fined £650,000 for polluting the Yealm estuary in Devon. The firm is paying for remediation work, which is expected to cost at least £500,000

International Paint Ltd has been fined after a banned chemical entered Devon’s Yealm estuary – a designated Special Area of Conservation.

The company, owned by multinational AkzoNobel, was found guilty on two charges following a nine-day hearing at Plymouth Crown Court last October in a prosecution brought by the Environment Agency (EA).

International Paint Ltd had denied both offences relating to the discharge of hazardous waste from a tank at its Newton Ferrers paint testing facility.

At the sentencing hearing on 16 January 2023, the company was fined £650,000 and ordered to pay £144,992 costs.

The EA investigation began after the company tried to sell the premises in 2015 and possible pollution had been reported.

Hazardous waste sediments escaped into the estuary at Newton Ferrers where International Paint had a testing facility. Credit: Alamy

One water sample taken close to the facility was found to contain 80,000 times the safe level of banned substance TBT: Alamy

International Paint Ltd, well known among boat owners for its paint and antifouling, had run a testing facility on the River Yealm at Newton Creek near Newton Ferrers since 1928.

Since the 1970s formulations containing tributyltin (TBT) had been used as an antifouling coating but it proved to be so toxic to the wider marine environment that it was banned from use on small vessels in the UK in the late 1980s, before being banned completely worldwide during the 2000s.

One drop of TBT in an Olympic-sized swimming pool equals one part per trillion (PPT).

The safe level of TBT is 0.2 PPT or a fifth of a drop. The EA found evidence that the chemical, along with copper, arsenic and mercury, had been present in sediment in a tank which had escaped into the estuary.

A bung on another tank had also come out, leaving it open to the estuary before it was eventually sealed with concrete.

Leading expert, Dr Michael Waldock, who reviewed the sample analysis results, found that nine out of 11 samples exceeded the safe limit for TBT and that, close to the site, one sample contained 80,000 times the safe level.

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He concluded that the TBT levels in the estuary were sufficient to have the potential for a major toxic effect on marine life.

A spokesman for the EA, James Wimpress said: “The company not only failed in its duty of care to the environment, but also denied any wrongdoing during the investigation and throughout the trial.

“We’re extremely pleased with the outcome and hope this serves as a warning to other companies.”

International Paint is paying for the remediation work, which is expected to cost at least £500,000.

Ralph Slikkerveer, on behalf of International Paint Ltd (IPL), said: “We regret and take full responsibility for the fine imposed by the court as a result of our conviction for the environmental release at our former Research & Development facility in Newton Ferrers in 2016.

“IPL is a responsible company, and we take our environmental obligations very seriously. The company has been in operation for over 120 years and has no prior environmental convictions or cautions.

“We are working closely with the Marine Management Organisation regarding the next steps to remedy contamination at the site. We have also conducted a full review of the events of 2016 and adopted the learnings to ensure an incident of this nature does not occur again at any of our sites.”

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