The Chelmer in central Chelmsford is the centrepiece of an amenity scheme. A riverside walkway links two shopping malls with housing estates, and the river is used by canoeists, sea scouts and anglers.
In April 1999, the Environment Agency participated in a community initiative to clean the watercourse. The local authority had previously raised concerns about shopping trolleys in the river. The Agency removed 51 trolleys, of which 33 belonged to Tesco.
Subsequent spring cleans in 2000 and 2001 found no improvement in the situation. The Agency felt that Tesco in particular could have done more to prevent trolleys being pushed into the river by vandals.
The Agency prosecuted Tesco on charges of causing and of knowingly permitting polluting matter to enter the river, contrary to section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991. The charges related to periods in 1999 and 2000.
Tesco appeared before Witham magistrates on 6 August to plead guilty to two charges. The court heard that the Agency had removed a total of 237 trolleys from the river between 1999 and 2001, of which 197 belonged to Tesco.
The prosecution said that the trolleys were a serious hazard to wildlife, canoeists, navigation, anglers and the Agency's own weed-cutting machine. They were also an eyesore and detracted from the river's amenity value. Tesco had resisted fitting coin-in-the-slot locks on the trolleys since 1998 because it feared customer disapproval.
The court felt the penalty should be considered at crown court and sentencing was deferred until 7 September. Chelmsford Crown Court fined the company £15,000 for each offence and ordered it to pay costs of £7,517.
As an example of absolute liability under water pollution legislation, the case is analogous to the Empress Cars case (ENDS Report 277, pp 45-46 ). Although Tesco did not put the trolleys in the river, it was deemed to have caused the pollution by failing to take measures to prevent them being abandoned.
Local Agency environmental protection manager Pat Ripton told ENDS: "This prosecution was necessary because Tesco had resisted for several years implementing all practicable measures to discourage customers from taking their trolleys to various car parks and footpaths near the rivers and leaving them where vandals dump them into the rivers."
The Agency had been removing about 100 trolleys from the river every year for the last ten years, he said. Tesco finally relented and put coin-operated locks on the trolleys this year after the Agency had decided to prosecute.
Tesco commented: "We are naturally disappointed that the Court imposed this fine despite accepting that we had taken all reasonable steps to prevent trolleys being removed from stores and abandoned."