Cider-maker HP Bulmer and its water treatment contractor have both been fined £300,000 for health and safety breaches which led to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
Judge Alistair McCreath also ordered the Hereford-based drinks firm and Nalco Limited to pay more than £50,000 each in prosecution costs after hearing two people died and more than 20 other members of the public fell ill in the city in 2003.
Passing sentence at Hereford Crown Court, Judge McCreath said the failure to clean two cooling towers adequately at Bulmer’s mill in Plough Lane, Hereford, in September 2003 was “almost beyond belief”.
Bulmer and Nalco, which is based in Northwich, Cheshire, both pleaded guilty last year to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act in connection with the outbreak.
Yesterday’s sentencing hearing was told that legionella bacteria were found in two cooling towers at Bulmer’s plant following the deaths of an elderly man and a 56-year-old woman in the winter of 2003.
Judge McCreath criticised both Bulmer and Nalco for their roles in the “woefully inadequate” cleaning of the towers in September 2003.
He said: “The fines which I will impose today are not, nor could they ever be, any measure of the value of the two lives lost nor of the grief of those who mourn them.
“I accept that the breaches in this case were not committed with a view to profit and I accept that they were not deliberate.”
The errors had arisen due to oversights and the cutting of corners, the judge said.
Earlier, Mark Harris, prosecuting, said the outbreak was traced to cooling tower number nine at the Plough Lane site.
“The outbreak came to the attention of the consultant in communicable disease control for this county at the end of October 2003,” Mr Harris said.
The court heard that 28 cases of Legionnaires’ disease were reported in October, November and December of 2003, affecting victims, aged between 36 and 91.
Describing the circumstances which led to legionella “flourishing” inside two cooling towers, Mr Harris said Bulmer had then operated outdated water treatment policy and also had deficiencies in its staff training.
Nalco had failed to comply with its contractual obligations to Bulmer by failing to adequately clean the towers and had also carried out an inadequate risk assessment on behalf of the cider-maker.
In a statement released after the hearing, a spokesman for H P Bulmer said it took its role in the community very seriously and had worked closely with the Health and Safety Executive to trace and eliminate the source of the outbreak.
Willie Crawshay, a director of Bulmer’s, said: “As you will have heard in court, those of us who worked on the Hereford site in 2003 and who were themselves part of the Hereford community, express our deepest and abiding regret that this outbreak occurred from our premises. I would like to reinforce our apologies made today in court for what occurred and our total resolve to prevent anything like this happening again.”