Polluters Warned by U.K. Judge of Bank-Sized Fines for Breaches

Large companies should face hefty financial penalties, equal to those dished out in the banking industry, if they break pollution and environmental laws, a U.K. Court of Appeal judge said.

A severe breach could result in a “fine equal to a substantial percentage, up to 100 percent, of the company’s pre-tax net profit, for the year in question,” Judge John Mitting said in a ruling in London Wednesday.

“Fines of such magnitude are imposed in the financial services market for breach of market regulations,” he said.

The remarks came in a ruling that dealt with an appeal by Thames Water Utilities Ltd. over a 250,000 pound ($382,300) fine for pumping untreated sewage into a river that flows through a 143-acre nature reserve in southern England.

Thames Water admitted culpability for the sewage discharge, but appealed the level of the fine handed out by a lower court. The three-judge panel dismissed the utility’s appeal, saying the “imposition of such a fine is a necessary and proper consequence of the importance to be attached to environmental protection.”

Since 1991 Thames Water has been convicted of 106 environmental offenses, according to the ruling. The company’s “record suggests that the appropriate message has not fully struck home,” Mitting said. “We would have had no hesitation in upholding a very substantially higher fine.”

Thames Water said that it has reviewed its procedures to ensure the chance of an incident like the one in the case doesn’t happen again.

“We very much regret this incident and have since carried out a thorough clean-up of the watercourse,” a spokesman for Thames Water said in a statement.

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