Bowes appeared before King’s Lynn magistrates’ court on 15 February to plead guilty to causing polluting matter to enter a tributary of the Watton brook near Saham Toney, contrary to sections 85(1) and (6) of the Water Resources Act 1991. Bowes was also ordered to pay £5,888 costs.
Bowes operates a large slaughterhouse and meat processing facility in Watton, near Norwich. The site can process up to 160 tonnes of carcasses per day and its customers include major retailers including Tesco.
Waste blood, urine and water are collected at the site, screened to remove solids and pumped to storage lagoons up to 2.5 kilometres away. The effluent is used to irrigate local fields.
On 5 October 2005, Bowes alerted the Environment Agency to a leak in the irrigation system. A pipe had burst during the night but was not discovered until the morning.
Some 100,000 litres of effluent escaped, only about a third of which was recovered by a tanker. The effluent spilled across a field into a ditch leading to the brook. Over 3km of the brook was polluted, killing a small number of fish. Anglian Water stopped abstracting drinking water from the river Wissey as a precaution.
An investigation found that a switch designed to shut down the pumps when there is a leak had failed, probably because the operator had not set it correctly.
The incident is Bowes’ tenth conviction for water pollution offences. In 2005, it was fined £1,000 with almost £2,000 costs after 1,000 litres of diesel leaked into the brook from the site. In 2002, it was fined £1,500 with £1,175 costs for an effluent leak from the abattoir.
Most incidents were caused by leaks from ageing pipelines between the site and the lagoons. In 1999, Bowes was fined £5,000 with £1,800 costs for such an incident. In 1998, it was fined a total of £14,000 with more than £4,000 costs for six water pollution offences caused by pipeline leaks.
Sites in the food and drink sector were brought under Agency regulation by the implementation of the IPPC Directive. In July 2005, the Agency issued a permit requiring Bowes to make numerous improvements, including replacing the pipelines and building an effluent treatment plant on site.
Speaking after the case, Agency inspector Roy Mantas said IPPC’s tough pollution control requirements had "come as a bit of a shock" to companies in the sector, including Bowes.
Mr Mantas said the company had recently agreed to replace the pipelines, at considerable expense. It is due to submit a report on the feasibility of installing effluent treatment, which may cost about £1 million.
Although the site and the pipelines were brought under IPPC, the lagoons and irrigation systems were not. Waste spreading for agricultural benefit is also exempt from waste management licensing.
Mr Mantis said he was "not 100% happy" with the exclusion and would like to see the lagoons brought under the permit.