A SUPERMARKET has been fined £8million after thousands of litres of petrol leaked into waterways killing dozens of fish and forcing people to evacuate their homes.

Tesco admitted breaching environmental laws after the leak from the petrol station at a branch in Rossendale led to reports of dead fish as far down river as Radcliffe and Ramsbottom.

Preston Crown Court heard there were ‘significant and serious’ failings by the supermarket giant after the incident in July 2014.

Prosecuting, Richard Bradley, told the court 23,500 litres of fuel escaped from a tank with around 16,500 entering the sewage system and then the River Irwell.

Dozens of people suffered nausea and headaches from the petrol fumes.

The supermarket chain was forced to pay out £20,000 compensation in one case.

Mr Bradley said there were four fuel tanks at the Syke Street site with the fuel pumped out under pressure rather than by a suction system. This meant extra control measures were needed to prevent fuel escaping.

The court heard a rubber connection used to transport fuel from the tank to the pumps had eroded.

But despite upgrading work being carried out at other Tesco petrol stations using the same methods, the Haslingden site was left off the list and no replacement work took place.

The court heard there were other failings that meant the leak was not detected and around 1,000 litres of petrol escaped every hour for around 29 hours.

Mr Bradley said several residents could smell petrol on the morning of July 3.

He said: “One recalled waking up to a strong smell in his home like white spirit.

“It was particularly strong around a sewer manhole. It was so strong he had to leave the property and stay with his mother for two nights.”

Another resident felt so unwell they went to A&E, while another was ‘worried about the risk to his health and the risk of an explosion’ so went to stay in a hotel, the court heard.

Another reported suffering a migraine, while her nephew was sick.

“Tesco has paid compensation to a number of households and in one case £20,000,” Mr Bradley said.

He said the Environment Agency found petrol present in the brook and the sewer system.

The brook smelt strongly and was an iridescent colour, while around 46 fish carcases were discovered in the River Irwell.

The presence of petrol was found three miles downstream, he said.

Defending Tesco, Mark Geoffrey Harris, said it was a ‘matter of consummate regret’ to Tesco and that it had made ‘significant errors’.

“Tesco apologises as strongly as it can for what has occurred and it accepts responsibility,” he said.

Judge Mark Brown said: “The risk of explosion was low though there is an issue between the experts about the risk of harm had there been an explosion.

"The prosecution expert said the risk was high and defence expert said it was low.

“There is no doubt in my mind the risk of death was high had there been an explosion."

He added the effect on resident’s health was short lived and it was suggested the River Irwell recovered within six months.

Judge Brown said it was a ‘very serious incident, that was entirely avoidable’ and there were ‘serious and significant failures to address the risk to health and safety’.

Mike Duddy, CEO of the Mersey Basin Rivers Trust, said after the incident that there were hundreds of dead fish on the river.

He said: “There were fish deaths reported downstream of Haslingden as far as Radcliffe, but these fish deaths appeared to be in isolated pockets and number in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands, which could have been expected if the pollution was allowed to move downstream unchecked.

“Thanks to the prompt response of United Utilities and the Environment Agency a potential catastrophe on the Irwell was averted.”

Tesco, whose fuel division had a turnover of around £5.5billion, was fined a total of £8million and ordered to pay costs of £57,152 after pleading guilty to polluting a watercourse and causing significant environmental impact."

A Tesco spokesman said: “We sincerely regret the fuel spillage incident at our petrol station in Haslingden and we’re sorry for the impact it had on the local environment, our customers and the community.

"This was a deeply unfortunate isolated incident and one for which we have taken full responsibility.

"Following the incident, we have inspected all relevant petrol stations, introduced a new real-time monitoring system and made a number of further improvements to protect against similar incidents happening again."

In April this year, nearly all water life on a 25-mile stretch of the River Irwell was killed after pesticide found its way into the river.

After the latest setback, Mike Duddy said: "This latest event is a massive set back for the river and all those who work so hard to bring these improvements about.”