School - An unlikely source of pollution?

A Somerset school was ordered to pay almost £17,000 in fines, compensation and costs after thousands of gallons of heating oil leaked from a faulty pipe and caused a major pollution alert.

The alarm was raised after a contractor discovered approximately 33,000 litres of oil had escaped from a corroded pipe connecting two oil storage tanks at the school.

Oil was discovered coming up through tarmac and was visible on the surface of a local pond. However the major concern was that the spill had occurred over a very sensitive groundwater aquifer and was in close proximity to drinking water abstraction boreholes located approximately one mile from the school.

As a precaution, the water company closed its Winscombe boreholes. Following further investigation, it was discovered that the oil pollution had not migrated as far as the Losses arising from this scenario? Yes / No Statutory Clean-up Costs Yes Third Party Damages Yes Own-Site Clean-up Costs Yes Biodiversity / Habitat Damage No Historical Release No Gradual Release Yes groundwater abstractions. Ironically, the school had been proactive and replaced its oil storage tanks, but failed to replace the pipeline linking the tanks to the boilers.

The consequences

The school was fined £9,000 and ordered to pay £2,901 costs by magistrates sitting at Weston-super-Mare after pleading guilty to causing polluting matter, namely heating oil, to enter controlled waters, namely groundwater, contrary to Section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991. It was also ordered to pay £5,000 compensation to Bristol Water plus a £50 victim surcharge.

Had the spillage impacted the drinking water abstraction, the costs to remediate would have been substantially greater.

This case demonstrates how even a seemingly low risk operator like a school has the potential to give rise to significant environmental liabilities. It also demonstrates how, despite good intentions and risk management (e.g. in upgrading the oil tanks), operator error or mechanical error still leaves the potential for environmental damage to occur.