Pollution incidents

Sarah Gathergood is an environmental consultant at Groundsure. In this blog, Sarah discusses pollution incidents and how they may affect you. If you have any questions or comments about this blog, you can contact the residential consultancy team at residential@groundsure.com

Although written sometime around the 1950s, Tom Lehrer’s comedic song ‘Pollution’ still rings true in today’s world. The song implies that the 1950s saw a lot of unmonitored pollution with little to no clear up. The song got me thinking, when pollution incidents occur now, do the words still feel relevant?

What constitutes a ‘pollution incident’?

The Environment Agency (EA) is responsible for holding records of, and dealing with, pollution incidents across England. Details of all reported pollution incidents to the EA are held on the National Incident Reporting System (1). Scotland and Wales have their own organisations, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

Pollution incidents are caused by a loss of control or malicious acts which lead to the release of harmful substances into water, air or land and can cause significant harm to the environment. They can be detrimental to wildlife and their ecosystems, as well as people and communities. For example, a large fire could decrease air quality (2) or an oil spill at sea could devastate marine life.




The EA responds to pollution incidents that are reported to them by members of the public and businesses. They have a 24-hour incident hotline, through which you can report damage or danger to the natural environment and pollution to water or land (3).

Once reported, the EA classifies the incident according to its impact on people and the environment, from category 4 (little or no impact) up to category 1 (the most serious) (4). To limit their impact, incidents are investigated on a risk basis and where appropriate the EA will take legal action against those responsible for causing the pollution (4).

Some notable examples of recent incidents include:

  • “Tesco hit with major £8million fine for pollution incident” (5). In July 2014 approximately 23,500 litres of petrol leaked from a tank at a Tesco petrol station in Haslingden. The incident occurred due to an issue with their fuel delivery system accompanied by a faulty alarm system that was supposed to alert the company if the tanks ever leaked. As well as having a detrimental effect on the immediate environment, local residents had to evacuate their homes because of the petrol odours coming from the sewer network. Following an investigation by the EA, Tesco was fined £5 million for the health and safety offence and £3 million for the environmental offence.
  • “Heineken paying £160,000 over pollution incident” (6). At a Bulmer’s cider plant in Hereford in August 2014, a container of ammonia contaminated water was poured into a surface water drain which led to a nearby brook (6). This caused the deaths of 2-3,000 fish in the waterway (6). The EA investigated and has now accepted £160,000 from the company as a result of an enforcement undertaking (6). This money will be split between the Wye & Usk foundation (local river ecology, conservation and restoration charity) and the Yazor Widemarsh & Eign Brook restoration project (6).

How often do they occur and what are the costs involved?

The EA spends around £12 million a year dealing with pollution incidents (4). In 2015 there were 499 recorded ‘serious’ pollution incidents and last year in 2016 the total number of recorded incidents rose for the first time in five years to 1,902 (7). As part of their response to this, the EA highlighted the worst offender and introduced ‘special measures to monitor and challenge’ this particular company’s performance. They also introduced tougher standards to try to mitigate the chance of further incidents occurring.

In 2015, the top industry sectors causing pollution incidents were farming, water companies, bio-waste treatment activities with permits, non-hazardous waste treatment activities with permits and waste treatment (metals recycling) activities with permits (4).

How do they affect me?

To find out if any recorded pollution incidents have occurred in your area, you can visit the Environment Agency website ‘What’s in Your Backyard?’ (http://apps.environment-agency.gov.uk/wiyby/default.aspx) and go to the ‘Pollution Incidents’ map.

Some of our Groundsure reports (Avista, Homebuyers, Homescreen, Screening, Review, Agricultural and Enviro Insight) will search a radius for any records (held by the Environment Agency/Natural Resources Wales) of recorded pollution incidents. If any are highlighted within your report and you are concerned, you can either contact our consultants to discuss this with one of them, or you can contact the Environment Agency/Natural Resources Wales for further information. However, it is likely that the incident was dealt with at the time of occurrence or shortly after. Click here to browse our reports.


  1. gov.uk. (2017). Environmental Pollution Incidents – Datasets. [online] Available at: https://data.gov.uk/dataset/environmental-pollution-incidents [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  2. Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: http://www.fwr.org/WQreg/Appendices/Pollution_Incidents_Report_2013_LIT_8547_b70a6b.pdf [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  3. uk. (2017). Report an environmental incident – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/report-an-environmental-incident [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  4. Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/553537/Pollution_incidents__2015_evidence_summary.pdf [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  5. uk. (2017). Tesco hit with major £8million fine for pollution incident – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/tesco-hit-with-major-8million-fine-for-pollution-incident [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  6. uk. (2017). Heineken paying £160,000 over pollution incident – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/heineken-paying-160000-over-pollution-incident [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].
  7. Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: 1. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/12/number-pollution-incidents-rises-first-time-five-years [Accessed 7 Sep. 2017].

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