A&P Falmouth Ltd has been fined £10,000 over a toxic spill the size of a football pitch in the Fal Estuary.

The fine, and costs of over £14,000 were awarded to the Environment Agency and Cornwall Council at a hearing held in Truro Magistrates Court on July 5 after the company pleaded guilty to an offence under ‘Environmental Permitting’ Regulations.

This related to an incident on September 29 when waste paint containing toxic substances was unintentionally discharged into the Fal Estuary from the Queen Elizabeth Dry Dock "causing a visible plume the approximate size of a football pitch".

The pollution was traced to Falmouth Docks where a Royal Fleet Auxilliary (RFA) vessel, the Cardigan Bay, was being refurbished by A & P Falmouth Ltd. High pressure jets were being used to remove antifouling paint from the ship’s hull.

Most of the blast spraying was done with a large machine that collected paint particles in a special hopper. However, a smaller machine and hand lances were used on the underside of the ship and other difficult to reach areas of the vessel. This smaller machine didn’t have a hopper which meant paint flakes and sludge escaped into the dock.

When the dock was hosed out, the sludge and paint flakes were washed down a drain and into the estuary, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Samples of the discharge were tested by the Agency and found to contain Tributyltin (TBT), a highly toxic compound which has been banned worldwide since 2008 following the intervention of the International Maritime Organisation of the UN.

TBT was widely used in antifouling paint to prevent marine organisms including seaweed and barnacles attaching themselves to ships’ hulls. Antifouling paints containing TBT were found to cause genetic mutations, sterility and death in fish and aquatic life. The substance does not easily break down in the environment and can poison larger sea animals as it moves up the food chain.

The paint sludge discharged from the docks was also found to contain high residues of toxic metals including copper, zinc, lead and iron.

TBT levels in the discharge from the dock  were found to be 11 times higher than the highest background concentrations ever recorded in the Fal estuary.

The Fal is famous for its shellfish including mussels, scallops and oysters that are hand dredged by local fishermen. Shellfish are among the organisms affected by TBT that can cause oysters to grow deformed shells.

A court heard that, in some cases, the concentrations of certain toxic compounds discharged into the estuary from Falmouth Docks on September 29, 2011 were so high they posed a risk to wildlife and, in others, were greatly above background levels for the Fal.

Magistrates expressed concern that the paint certificate ‘paper trail’ at the docks had failed and urged A & P Falmouth and/or the Environment Agency to raise the matter with the appropriate regulatory authorities.

"These offences were avoidable. While we accept the company was not aware of the presence of TBT, it should have made greater efforts to monitor the content of the effluent that was being washed down the drain and installed an effective filter system to capture paint flakes and other potentially harmful residues produced as part of its ship refurbishment operations," said Redwyn Sterry for the Environment Agency.

‘We will act on the recommendation of the court and share its concerns over the paint certification process with the relevant authorities including the MOD that was responsible for the RFA vessel in Falmouth Docks at the time of these offences,’ said Redwyn Sterry.

The estuary is part of a Special Area of Conservation and close to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The company has said it deeply regrets and apologises for the "accidental discharge".

The ship repair business operated by A&P Falmouth Ltd includes the stripping of paint from vessels and the application of new surface coatings in dry dock.

Due to the nature of this activity and the associated emissions a ‘permit’ is required under environmental legislation which is issued and regulated by the Public Health and Protection Service (PH&P) of Cornwall Council.

This contains conditions intended to ensure that pollution is prevented and/or controlled, and includes conditions relating to discharges to water drafted by the Environment Agency.

Cornwall Council and the Environment Agency therefore took the step of taking joint proceedings for the incident, which had been reported anonymously, and involved an Environment Agency officer taking a boat out on the estuary to take samples of the water.

A&P Falmouth Ltd apologised for the discharge and reported that this was an isolated incident caused due to the washing out with hoses of a paint sludge that had fallen onto the floor of the dry dock. The company has since taken measures to prevent any similar incidents from occurring, including the use of hessian filters.

Rebecca Kirk, Cornwall Council assistant head of service for community and environmental protection said: “Cornwall Council’s Public Health & Protection Service is responsible for regulating over 180 ‘Environmental Permits’ held by businesses in the county. Most of these permits are concerned with preventing and controlling discharges to air, but some permits also control water discharges as is the case with A&P Falmouth Ltd.

"It is extremely rare for enforcement action to be taken against businesses carrying out activities requiring a permit because the vast majority recognise the importance of fulfilling their environmental and legal responsibilities.

"However, in this particular instance A&P Falmouth fell significantly short of this standard by failing to meet the requirements of their permit. This meant that there was little option but to take enforcement action, as is the public expectation in such cases especially where the release of toxic substances in the environment are concerned.

"I am pleased we were able to work in partnership and take joint proceedings with the Environment Agency, who had responded to the incident at the time of occurrence and who regulate waste and water offences. It is worth acknowledging A&P Falmouth’s guilty plea in this matter and I am pleased that it has been brought to a conclusion and that A&P Falmouth have implemented measures designed to prevent any future incidents of this nature.”

A&P Falmouth managing director Peter Child said: “A&P takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously and our activities are strictly regulated. We deeply regret and apologise for this accidental discharge and have taken steps to ensure that it will not happen again.

“This was a one-off incident, and the first time in blasting and painting more than 1,000 ships over 13 years that we have had a release of paint sludge into the environment. We have already installed a hessian filter system in all three of our dry docks, upgraded our equipment with additional filtration and have issued revised guidance to all our staff working in this area.

“A&P was one of the first ship repair yards in Europe to be accredited with the international ISO 14001 environmental management standard and the Environment Agency accepts that we did not set out to pollute.”