Somerset School Taught an Expensive Lesson in Oil Pollution

15th August 2009
A Somerset school was recently ordered to pay almost 17,000 in fines, compensation and costs after thousands of gallons of heating oil leaked from a faulty pipe, causing a major pollution alert.
The alarm was raised on October 12, 2008 after a contractor discovered approximately 33,000 litres of oil had been lost from Sidcot School, Winscombe on the edge of the Mendips. The fuel escaped from a corroded pipe connecting two oil storage tanks to the school's heating boilers.
The spill occurred on a major aquifer close to public drinking water supply boreholes. As a precaution Bristol Water closed its Winscombe boreholes because of the risk of contamination of water supplies.
The water source is just over a mile away from Sidcot School. On October 13, 2008 North Somerset Council Environmental Health Officers were told about the oil spill. Bristol Water was alerted by Agency officers the previous day.
Magistrates heard that the School's maintenance engineer had checked two oil storage tanks and found they were empty. At first he thought the oil had been stolen. Then he then walked in the direction of the underground pipeline and discovered oil coming up through the tarmac. 
Several local residents in Church Road, Winscombe had earlier reported seeing oil on the surface of a pond known locally as Five Springs Pool. Agency officers checked the pond and noticed a 'strong smell of oil'. The pond is groundwater fed.
Investigations suggest the Winscombe public water supply boreholes are fed by the same aquifer as Five Springs Pool. So far no oil contamination has been detected at the Winscombe Boreholes, but Bristol Water is continuing to monitor the site.
The leaking section of fuel pipe line at Sidcot School showed signs of corrosion. It was originally installed around 40 years ago. Samples of groundwater taken from a borehole close to the leak (10 metres) contained petroleum hydrocarbon levels far in excess of acceptable levels for drinking water.
'This potentially serious pollution incident occurred in a sensitive groundwater protection area close to public water supplies. The school had previously replaced its oil storage tanks, but failed to replace the pipeline linking the tanks to the boilers. It wrongly assumed that after inspecting a short section of pipe and finding it intact, there was no corrosion in any of the remaining pipe,' said Andrew Whitby for the Environment Agency.
A court heard that just one litre of oil can pollute one million litres of drinking water. Monitoring of groundwater around Winscombe is continuing and it could be sometime before the full extent of any contamination would be known because of the complex geology of the area.
Sidcot School, of Oakridge Lane, Winscombe, Somerset was today fined 9,000 and ordered to pay 2,901 costs by magistrates sitting at Weston-super-Mare after pleading guilty to causing polluting matter, namely heating oil, to enter controlled waters, namely groundwater, contrary to Section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991. It was also ordered to pay 5,000 compensation to Bristol Water plus a 50 victim surcharge.
Sidcot School is a non-profit making charity originally established in 1699 for the education of Quaker children. Today it educates children of all faiths, but still maintains its Quaker ethos. It became a private company in 1987. There are currently 160 boarding and 350 day pupils aged between 4 and 18.

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Article Last Updated 15th August 2009
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