North West Water's thirteenth prosecution this year

1994 has been a record year for North West Water (NWW). The company has been prosecuted 13 times for pollution offences since January and paid fines of over £67,000. In the most recent case, NWW was ordered to pay over £4,000 after a sludge spill polluted a stream.

NWW contacted the National Rivers Authority (NRA) to report the incident at Shap sewage works, Cumbria, in July. Although described as a small spill by the works staff, on investigation an NRA officer found that the stream was badly affected and a large slug of sludge was making its way downstream.

NRA and NWW staff dammed the Shap Beck two kilometres downstream of the works and arranged for tankers to pump sludge out of the stream. Despite working throughout the night and all the following day, dissolved oxygen levels in the stream were still low and the NRA eventually decided to put aerators in the stream to increase oxygen levels. The incident killed at least 17 brown trout.

The NRA brought a charge of causing sewage effluent to pollute controlled waters contrary to section 85(3)(a) and 86(6) of the Water Resources Act 1991. NWW pleaded guilty before Penrith magistrates on 18 November.

The court heard that the spillage occurred after a pump failure caused a sludge overflow which then contaminated the treated effluent being discharged from the works. The breakdown was compounded by an error of judgement by staff. NWW was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,292.

NWW was one of the sewerage undertakers praised for its efficiency by water regulator Ofwat during the water industry price review in July. That verdict can have paid little heed of the company's environmental performance, which, judged by prosecutions, has shown a consistent deterioration since privatisation in September 1989. At the end of 1992, the company had been prosecuted only four times. By the end of 1993 this had increased to 11 times. The current tally is 24.

Meanwhile, NWW is facing a test case over discharges from combined sewer overflows in January. The Anglers Cooperative Association (ACA) is bringing a civil action on behalf of an individual member who is a wildfowl enthusiast. Robert Hesketh owns a wetland area next to a waterway adjacent to his home near Southport which he manages as a wildfowl habitat.

During heavy rain, storm overflows pour sewage into the watercourse which then floods onto Mr Hesketh's land, leaving behind a trail of sewage debris and dead fish. The ACA will allege that the overflows have caused deaths of duck from salmonella poisoning and that the NWW's sewerage system is inadequate to cope with the loads placed upon it. The ACA is applying for an undertaking from the company to improve the sewerage system and prevent the discharges.

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