Woodbury stream was polluted by sewage spill

PUBLISHED: 14:16 13 March 2017

Exeter Crown Court.

Exeter Crown Court.


South West Water has pleaded guilty to a charge relating to a sewage spill which polluted a stream in Woodbury.

A blocked sewer led to waste spilling out into the Polly Brook and across a road near the bridge at Ham Lane.

The pollution killed fish in the stream but the water company failed to comply with its statutory duty to inform the Environment Agency (EA) straight away, Exeter Crown Court was told.

The company cleared the blockage as soon as villagers reported the problem, but then organised a clear-up in which staff were seen removing dead fish with a net and taking them away in a black bin bag.

The company also organised an outside contractor to suck a tanker load of polluted water out of the brook, thus removing even more of the dead fish.

The Environment Agency only learned about the spill when a member of the public rang to complain about the smell of the pollution and told them she had seen South West Water staff removing dead fish.

The company admitted allowing an illegal discharge into the brook in September 2014.

Judge Geoffrey Mercer, QC, adjourned sentence until later this month.

Andrew Marshall, prosecuting, said the spill happened when sewage was discharged from an outflow pipe which is designed as a release mechanism to prevent the sewer from being overloaded by flood water.

Discharges are only allowed during bad weather when high flows of water dilute any sewage, but the weather was dry on the day of the pollution incident, which was caused by a blocked sewer.

Strict rules about reporting incidents mean the company should have notified the EA as soon as it was known that fish had been killed.

Mr Marshall said EA staff were not informed on the Saturday the spill occurred, when dead fish were removed from the stream and put in a bin bag which was taken to Countess Wear sewage works in Exeter, rather than a laboratory where the fish could be examined.

The EA only learned about the spill from a member of the public on the Monday, when there was still a foul smell around the stream and more dead fish including eels, minnows, gudgeon, stickleback and roach.

The total discharge was estimated at around 4,500 litres and grey sewage was still visible in the stream on the Monday.

Martin Meeke, QC, defending, said the company had not informed the EA on the day of the spill because the engineers sent to tackle the problem did not understand the protocols.

He said the company were in the process of telling the agency on the Monday and had apologised for the breakdown in communications ‘time without number’.

Mr Meeke said an automatic warning device has now been fitted to the sewer, which has been cleaned more regularly than regulations require and had been washed out 15 months before the spill.

He said it would cost £78.5 million to clean all the 15,700 miles of sewer each year. The company has spent £4 million installing telemetry since this spill.

He said: “Many of the problems which the company encounters are the result of a build up of what is known as rag. The main problem for them and other water companies are wet wipes.

“While normal lavatory paper dissolves in water, wet wipes do not because they have a higher percentage of plastic.”

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