Schneider Electric has been prosecuted for breaching the F-Gas Regulations, after environmentally-harmful sulphur hexaflouride (SF6) gas was released to the air in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex in 2013.
The company was fined £3,000 and also ordered to pay £18,368 in costs by Basildon Magistrates Court.
The case concerned 15kg of SF6 gas, which was released to the air from high-voltage switchgear being installed at the London Gateway Port. Following the installation, busbars were found to be faulty and needed to be removed from within the circuit breaker. The gas was released when this part of the system was being removed.
SF6 has the highest global warming potential of any gas being targeted under climate change legislation. The emission of 1 kg of SF6 is equivalent to an emission of 22,800 kg of CO2.
Rooma Horeesorun from the Environment Agency, who led the prosecution, described SF6 as a "highly potent" fluorinated greenhouse gas that would remain in the atmosphere for generations. She added that the environmental damage caused was equivalent of flying a 737 jet airliner from Heathrow to Sydney, Australia, and back three times over.
Schneider Electric was subcontracted by the project's principal contractor to install the switching gear. Schneider used its own subcontractor to remove the busbars, but that company - Metricab Power Engineering Ltd - was not informed and did not realise that the switchgear had been filled with SF6 gas.
Schneider Electric reported the gas' release to the EA and the Health & Safety Executive.
"It is always disappointing to hear of any incidence of environmentally harmful gas being released to atmosphere," commented Tim Rook, technical director of the Building Engineering Services Association (the BESA).
"Our industry has made real progress in managing recovery and reclamation of f-gases in recent years, thanks to initiatives such as Refcom, the mandatory refrigerant handling certification scheme," he said. "This episode reminds us of the importance of remaining vigilant, and it is reassuring to see that the government agency charged with enforcing the F-Gas Regulations is able to follow up reports of wrongdoing with punitive action."
Mr Rook believes that the policing of the F-Gas Regulations is under-resourced, and that government cannot depend on companies to do the right thing and report any errors themselves.
"There can be little dispute that there are all too many unreported f-gas venting episodes going on out there, and that the EA needs much greater investment to step up its monitoring work," he added.
It has been a legal requirement since July 2009 for all businesses that install, maintain or service stationary equipment containing or designed to contain f-gas refrigerants to obtain an F-Gas Company Certificate.
Refcom, which was set up by the BESA in 1994, was appointed by the government to provide this mandatory service for the refrigeration and air conditioning sectors. It works with the EA to ensure that the regulations are properly enforced and that satisfactory reclamation is carried out - and now accounts for more than 80% of the total UK refrigerant handling market.
Pictured: BESA technical director Tim Rook