Power giant faces £im pollution action

Next month sees the first round of a three-tier High Court test case against electricity company Powergen which could cost the company over £1 million in damages.

Kent farmer Dennis Clifton claims fall out from the burning of orimulsion fuel at Richborough Power Station, near Ramsgate, from 1991 until 1995, wrecked crops of brussels sprouts, spring greens and iceberg lettuces. The power station has since been closed.

In a joint action with Prudential Nominees, from whom he rents part of 800-acre Abbey Farm, Clifton is taking on Powergen in a test case claim.

The first round of the case is scheduled to go before Official Referee Judge John Hicks QC soon after the new legal term resumes in the first week of June. At a hearing expected to last four weeks, the judge will be asked to decide whether necrotic leaf damage to Clifton's crops was caused by sulphate fall-out from the Richborough station.

If he decides that is the case, the action will adjourn until next February when the court will deal with whether Powergen should be held liable. If that hearing goes against Powergen a final hearing next July will decide damages, estimated to run to well over £1 million.

Solicitor Daniel Lawrence, of City firm Lovell White Durrant, which is acting for Clifton and Prudential, said: "The first hearing will focus on operational aspects of the burning of orimulsion at Richborough."

However, although Powergen's use of orimulsion is at the centre of the action, the implications of the case stretch further than east Kent and the ruling will have a bearing on Powergen's use of the fuel at Ince B power station, north Cheshire, and National Power's intention to burn it at its station in Pembroke, South Wales.

The present action mirrors another major High Court claim which was scheduled for January this year.

Gefko (UK), Citroen UK and Peugeot Talbot Motor Company, sought damages from Powergen over damage to imported vehicles brought into the UK through east Kent ports and stored on land near Richborough.

The claim was settled at the eleventh hour by an agreement that Powergen insurers would pay out an estimated £3 million for the damage.

Powergen has said it will mount a "robust defence" to the new claims but speculation is mounting that an eleventh hour deal could be cut to end litigation which could be costly and damaging to the electricity industry.