New legislation ups the stakes on river pollution

A drinks manufacturer has become the first company to be prosecuted twice for a single water pollution incident. The firm also suffered the first fine of more than £2,000 to be imposed by a magistrates court since the maximum penalty for water pollution offences was raised by the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

The case made history in that it was the first in which both the National Rivers Authority (NRA) and a sewerage undertaker have brought actions in respect of single pollution incident. Such double prosecutions were made possible by the Water Act 1989, which separated the poacher and gamekeeper functions of the former water authorities.

The prosecutions were brought against Appletise Bottling of Spennymoor, Durham, for an incident last August when the river Wear was polluted with apple juice concentrate. Sedgefield magistrates heard that about 50,000 litres of the liquid were flushed down storm drains by the firm's quality manager. The discharge overwhelmed Tudhoe sewage works and entered the stream, killing almost 1,000 fish. The court was told that the incident was not reported to Northumbrian Water, and that the company subsequently sought to cover up the magnitude of the spill.

Appletise pleaded guilty to a charge brought by the NRA under section 107 of the 1989 Act and was fined £10,000 - half the new maximum available to magistrates under the 1990 Act. The firm was also ordered to pay £1,867 costs and £3,450 in compensation.

A separate charge was brought by Northumbrian Water under the Public Health Act 1936 for an unconsented discharge to sewer. For this offence, Appletise was fined £1,000 with £900 costs, and ordered to pay £12,812 compensation.

In incidents such as the Appletise case where pollution is caused by an unconsented discharge to sewer entering a river via a water company's sewerage system, the 1989 Act enables the NRA to prosecute either the discharger or the water company. To prosecute a water company successfully, the NRA would have to show that it could "reasonably have been expected to prevent the discharge from entering the sewer or works." This point has yet to be tested in the courts.

A similar case is due to come before the courts in June, when Clark Electroplating (Wrexham) will face charges brought by the NRA and Welsh Water. The case follows an alleged illegal discharge of cyanide to sewer last year which disabled a sewage works and killed more than 1,000 fish in the Clywedog river.

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