Pollution incidents and environmental damage

What is environmental damage?

Very serious cases of water pollution, land contamination and damage to biodiversity are classed as environmental damage, and dealt with through the Environmental Liability Regulations.

Most cases of pollution and damage will be covered by other legislation. For example, if you cause a less serious water pollution incident, you may be issued with a notice to remedy the pollution or be prosecuted.

The Environmental Liability Regulations force businesses to take action to prevent environmental damage and to clean up any damage that they cause, known as remediation.

If you carry out any of the strict liability activities listed in the regulations and you cause environmental damage, you will have to prevent further damage and/or remedy the damage even if you were not at fault or negligent. Strict liability activities include:

  • waste management operations needing a permit or registration such as collecting, transporting, recovering and disposing of waste and hazardous waste
  • operating landfill sites
  • managing extractive mining waste
  • making discharges to surface water and groundwater that require an authorisation
  • abstracting and storing water in a way that requires a licence
  • activities involving dangerous substances, pesticides and biocides
  • transporting dangerous and polluting goods
  • activities involving genetically modified organisms
  • activities requiring a pollution prevention and control permit
  • importing and exporting waste

You are liable if your activity caused or is likely to cause environmental damage. You must prevent or remediate the damage. The regulations do not apply to any environmental damage that occurred before 24 July 2009.

Environmental damage to water

Pollution of the water environment is classed as environmental damage if it is serious enough to lower the status of the water body in terms set by the European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive, eg changing the ecological status of surface water from good to moderate or poor - find more information on the EU Water Framework Directive definition of ecological status.

If you pollute the water environment in a way which isn't serious enough to be classed as environmental damage, you can still be prosecuted if you:

  • cause harm to human health
  • damage natural ecosystems
  • interfere with drinking water, recreational activities and any other use of the water environment

For more information, see preventing water pollution.

Environmental damage to land

Land contamination may be classed as environmental damage if there is a significant risk that it could cause harm to human health - eg contamination by benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic chemicals - see contaminated land.

Environmental damage to biodiversity

Biodiversity damage is classed as environmental damage if it causes:

  • a significant harmful effect on the conservation status of an EU protected species or natural habitat
  • a harmful effect on the ecological structure and function of an area of special scientific interest, eg manure spreading on protected grassland

Find out if your business activities take place in or near Special Areas of Conservation in Northern Ireland.

Exemptions from the Environmental Liability Regulations

The regulations do not apply to:

  • any environmental damage that occurred before 24 July 2009
  • damage caused by exceptional natural events, such as flooding which causes pollution from your site

The regulations may not apply to damage caused by modifications or alterations based on a River Basin Management Plan.

If you cause environmental damage that is exempt from the Environmental Liability Regulations you can still be prosecuted under other legislation.