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Operators of Falmouth Docks fined for pollution spill

Refurbishment of Royal Fleet Auxilliary (RFA) vessel causes TBT pollution of Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation

A ship repair company has been ordered to pay £24,300 in fines and costs for polluting Cornwall's famous Fal estuary with toxic paint sludge.

The case was brought by the Environment Agency and Cornwall Council.

On September 29, 2011 the Agency received a report of pollution in the estuary. On arrival an officer saw a large rusty-coloured plume in the harbour covering an area approximately the 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.

A & P Falmouth Ltd operates under permit issued by Cornwall Council that doesn't allow the company to treat vessels containing TBT. When RFA Cardigan Bay arrived at Falmouth Docks, the company relied on a certificate supplied by the ship's owner, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to ensure it didn't contain TBT.

The certificate confirmed that TBT-free paint was delivered to the vessel when it was last painted in Bahrain in 2009, but could not guarantee the same paint was applied to the ship. The only way to have been sure would have been for A & P Falmouth to have taken a sample from the ship's hull prior to removal of the paint.

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, one of the largest deepwater harbours in the world.

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.

Redwyn Sterry for the Environment Agency
"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..."

"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.
Appearing before Truro magistrates A & P Falmouth Ltd was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £14,300 costs after pleading guilty to two offences including causing a polluting discharge to enter tidal waters and being in breach of its Local Authority permit. The case was heard on Friday (July 5).

Since the incident, the company has started using hessian filters to capture potentially harmful substances and reduce the risk of pollutants escaping into the internationally important Fal estuary.