THE firm behind a controversial quarry extension planned near a Scottish World Heritage Site has paid out millions of pounds in penalties for breaking environmental laws.

Environmental agencies in the UK and America have taken action more than 40 times against Mexican building materials giant Cemex after complaints of malpractice at its sites.

They intervened after claims that Cemex facilities had contaminated waters with waste, released a pollutant linked to acid rain and health defects in children without proper permits, and broken other laws.

Cemex-owned sites were repeatedly reprimanded by regulators for apparent breaches of the same environmental law in the space of a few years.

The revelations come as Cemex is locked in a bitter dispute over proposals to expand its Hyndford aggregates quarry into a green "buffer zone" around the New Lanark World Heritage Site, one of only five such Unesco-recognised sites in Scotland.

Plans to quarry land near New Lanark, close to the Falls of Clyde – which have inspired writers and artists such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Turner – have been fiercely contested by some residents.

Campaigners against the proposals said the revelations raised serious questions about Cemex's environmental credentials and called on South Lanarkshire Council to reject the application.

Joan McAlpine MSP, who tabled a parliamentary motion opposing the plans, said: "The information uncovered by The Herald into Cemex's environmental record in the UK and internationally is very concerning.

"While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing at the Hyndford site, I would certainly think it gives us another reason why an extension of the quarry into the buffer zone of a World Heritage Site should not go ahead."

An investigation by The Herald involving the use of Freedom of Information laws found environmental agencies have received hundreds of complaints about Cemex-owned sites.

In America the company has paid more than $5 million (£3.2 million) in penalties since 2007 after agreements with local and federal agencies over allegedly violating environmental laws.

The UK's Environment Agency received 350 complaints mentioning Cemex in the past decade, leading to more than a dozen enforcement actions resulting in cautions and fines.

One cement plant in Warwickshire, has faced repeated enforcement action for breaking a variety of environmental laws, picking up fines totalling £70,000.

North of the Border, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has sent numerous warning letters to Cemex facilities after complaints that dust escaped off site and a pump failure let waste run into water.

Professor Mark Stephens, leader of opposition group Save Our Landscapes, said: "Cemex has stressed its environmental credentials, and these have been shown to be a multinational sham from a multinational company.

"When dealing with the environment and heritage, there are no second chances. There are always risks when undertaking extraction, and this is an especially sensitive area. Cemex's record is not one that inspires confidence."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP, who backed a motion opposing the plans, said: "These concerning revelations reaffirm my position that the proposals to extend Hyndford Quarry into the buffer zone of the New Lanark World Heritage Site could pose a serious risk to the site's UN status."

Each year 350,000 tourists visit New Lanark, an 18th-century village famous as the setting for Robert Owen's model of utopian socialism. The Falls of Clyde attract about 70,000 visitors.

South Lanarkshire Council is expected to decide on Cemex's proposals, which include extracting 3.6 million tonnes of sand and gravel from the new site over six years, this summer.

No complaints about Cemex's Hyndford quarry have been logged with Scotland's environment agency and there is no suggestion the site has broken environmental laws.

A Cemex spokesman said: "Cemex takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and has consistently invested in improving that performance.

"Since 2007 environmental incidents in the UK have reduced by 96% and the last prosecution dates from that year.

The company has a proactive and positive approach and all incidents are reported, many of which are subsequently identified as minor or unjustified once investigated.

"All our operations have the necessary permits issued by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency.

"The company has implemented environmental management systems, invested in extensive training programmes and risk identification and emergency preparedness to ensure that our performance reflects that of a responsible operator." Cemex runs 353 UK sites and 655 American ones.

The spokesman said it has established partnerships with environmental bodies such as BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a number of UK Wildlife Trusts.