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Essar pleads guilty to two major pollution incidents in the UK

26 October 2015

Essar Oil has pleaded guilty at Chester Crown Court to breaches of its environmental permits during two separate incidents at its Stanlow refinery in Cheshire in 2012. The first incident saw several tonnes of oil sprayed into the air in a plume of steam after a storage tank exploded, and the second involved the leakage of a large volume of oil into the Manchester Ship Canal.

In the first incident on July 31, 3.7 tonnes of oil was sprayed into the air in a plume of steam after a storage tank exploded under pressure.  The mixture of oil and steam covered an area of Ellesmere Port approximately 5.8km long and 0.8km wide. At its furthest point, it covered 7,500 gravestones in a film of oil and water at Overpool Cemetery.

The second incident happened on August 19 when a leak led to five tonnes of oil ending up in the Manchester Ship Canal.

Richard Bradley, the prosecutor, said the first incident occurred after catastrophic failure in a process at the refinery. He said a procedure that had only been used three times previously to mix hot and cold oil in a tank went wrong because the teams responsible had not familiarised themselves with how to run it.

An alarm in the control room warned that the temperature in the tank was too high but staff assumed that the temperature gauge was faulty and the tank, which was designed to fail under pressure, exploded, releasing the mixture of oil and steam.

Cheshire West and Chester Council's environment team received a large number of complaints from people whose homes and cars were covered in a film of oil from the blast. Essar spent £1.2 million on a clean-up operation in the area in the days after the incident.

The second incident happened in a separate part of the plant in a system which was supposed to filter out excess water from oil before being released into the canal. This failed and the system was overwhelmed with oil, leading to the leak which Bradley said was "extremely flammable, harmful to aquatic life and a level two carcinogen".

As a result of the spill, Essar paid £210,000 to clean up the canal, which was closed for two days.

Essar pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, had co-operated with the investigations and paid clean-up costs, Bradley said, but had been negligent. The defence said the company, despite its £6bn turnover, had lost £10m in the last four years and asked for any fine to take that into consideration.

The court will determine the level of the fine to be paid by Essar over the coming days.

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