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LONDON -- The U.K. Environment Agency is calling for stiffer court fines for U.K. companies that pollute the environment.

The agency, the U.K.'s environmental watchdog, contends that current U.K. fine levels are no deterrent to pollution for large U.K. companies.

The move is being supported by the U.K. Assn. of Insurance & Risk Managers, which says higher court fines will raise corporate awareness of environmental management in the United Kingdom.

In the 1997-98 financial year, the Environment Agency prosecuted 600 U.K. companies for environmental pollution, a 16% increase from the previous year.

The average fine was L2,000 ($3,354) per ton of chemical released.

Martin Brocklehurst, head of the Environment Agency's environment protection service, said that while U.K. courts are taking a harder line on environmental pollution, fines still are not high enough to deter multimillion-pound companies.

The largest environmental fine in the United Kingdom in 1997-98 was a L300,000 ($503,100) fine against Imperial Chemical Industries P.L.C.

of London in Warrington Crown Court (BI, March 23).

Mr. Brocklehurst said the ICI fine is the Environment Agency's largest-ever prosecution, but it is "nowhere near" the largest environmental fines issued by U.S. courts, which he said can be well over L20 million ($33.5 million).

Graham Lee, chairman of AIRMIC's environmental group and director of risk management at Waste Management International P.L.C., of London, said there needs to be a significant increase in fines for environmental pollution in the United Kingdom.

He said increased fines are well overdue and essential to reducing pollution in the short term and raising awareness of environmental management in the long term.