What happens when the gamekeeper turns poacher? This was the scenario outlined to the Crown Court sitting at Nottingham when Severn Trent Water Limited was fined £350,000 and ordered to pay the Environment Agency costs of £68,000. Why? In 2015 the River Amber in Derbyshire was polluted by a release of sodium hydroxide from a water treatment works operated by Severn Trent. As a result thousands of dead fish were found and the contaminant took its toll over a length of the river environment.
Following the discovery of the dead fish, an investigation took place and it was revealed that the source of the problem was a leak within the treatment works which led to the escape of the sodium hydroxide. Although this did not pass directly into the river, it traversed through a gully and then into the river. The escape itself was serious enough but it transpired that Severn Trent Water were unable to point to a policy which dealt with such potential incidents, not only at these particular treatment works but at other similar sites in the rest of the country. This lack of preparedness led the Judge to be extremely critical of the company. Needless to say, Severn Trent Water is an extremely reputable company which serves many millions of homes and businesses and sincere regret and apologies were proffered on its behalf in Court. It was said that the company cooperated fully with the investigation and made a very significant ex gratia contribution to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.
Farmers are well used to the wide ranging regulations which control their use, storage and disposal of potentially toxic chemicals. The successful prosecution of one of the UK’s largest companies is a salutary warning though. It is this, the release of toxic chemicals in an uncontrolled and maybe unexpected way can have devastating environmental and financial consequences. If it can happen to a company of the size and credibility of Severn Trent Water, it can happen to anyone and all users, of whatever size, must ensure that policies are in place and enforced and, of course, accompanied by extreme vigilance.