Thousands of fish died from pollution and thousands more were rescued by Environment Agency staff from a river at Halstead in Essex when toxic chemicals were spilled.
Berwick Hall Farm was responsible for the pollution and today (Tues 26 Nov) appeared before magistrates to answer charges.
The farm was fined £34,000 and ordered to pay full costs of £32,997 and a victim surcharge of £120.
Mr Matthew Clark, the company director, was driving a tractor over a badly constructed bridge trailing a sprayer of agricultural chemicals when it tipped and emptied much of its contents into Toppesfield Brook, a tributary of the River Colne.
Mrs Anne-Lise McDonald, prosecuting for the Agency, said the incident could have been prevented had the bridge been constructed and maintained properly or if the director had chosen a different route to avoid the river crossing.
Magistrates heard that approximately 12,300 fish were killed in the River Colne and 3,000 were killed in the brook during the pollution on 13 June 2012.
Environment Agency fisheries officers mounted a round the clock rescue of 7,700 fish with the help of officers from other parts of the country when the Agency initiated its major incident procedure.
Mrs McDonald told the court that at the time of the pollution Anglian Water was taking water from the River Colne to fill Ardleigh Reservoir but had to stop operations for 27 days, depleting the amount of stored water. The company also pumped water from two of its boreholes into the river to try to help dilute the pollution.
The farm’s director told Agency officers he thought the wheel of the crop sprayer he had been towing had caught in a rut tipping it over and spilling about 5,000 litres of agricultural chemical into Toppesfield Brook.
An environment officer suggested that he and the director should investigate reports that the water was white at Stambourne Bridge suggesting it might be concentrated there and possibly could be pumped out. The director followed the officer but said he did not have a suitable pump and could not help any further.
More staff from the Agency were called along with the fire service, said Mrs McDonald. They dammed the brook and pumped the contaminated water onto adjacent fields which went on throughout the night. By the following morning the fields were saturated but downstream the water was still polluted so they set up two more dams and pumped more water onto other fields.
Mrs McDonald said dead fish were already evident downstream of the third dam.
In a written response to questions from the Agency, the company said pipes in the bridge/culvert had been replaced earlier in the year but the bridge had been used safely since. The director had been on his way to spray crops on the fields of Hole Farm when the accident happened. He had notified the Environment Agency.
The company said although there were other accesses to the field they believed the bridge was the safest.
A structural report from an engineering company concluded that the bridge had been constructed in a way that ruts were likely to appear.
Berwick Hall Farm suggested that significant rainfall may have made the surface of the bridge slippery and/or potentially unstable and regretted the damage caused to the surrounding area, the local fish and animals.
Biologists said that for 15km downstream from the spill macro invertebrates were either dead or dying. The pesticide pollution was the cause of the death of the fish and the invertebrates.
Stephanie Coates, solicitor for the defence said in mitigation that the company had acted swiftly to report the incident and had shown remorse for the damage caused.
After the hearing Environment Agency officer Peter Cooke said: “This incident had a catastrophic impact on fish and aquatic life in Toppesfield Brook and the River Colne and affected drinking water supplies many miles away.
“The prompt reporting enabled the Environment Agency to dam the river and save the fish.
“The significant ecological damage, combined with today’s fine, and the huge costs incurred by the farm insurers, should act as a sobering reminder to all pesticide users of the acute and toxic nature of the chemicals they use’
Environment Officer Ralph Robinson, first on the scene, said: ‘When I arrived Toppesfield Brook was already milky white in colour and there was a pungent chemical smell in the air. The sprayer was toppled on its side on the bridge and the strong flow on the brook was causing the pesticide to disperse downstream rapidly.’
Berwick Hall Farm Ltd
On or about 13 June 2012, you did cause the entry into inland freshwaters, namely the Toppesfield Brook, a tributary of the River Colne, of poisonous noxious or polluting matter, namely chemicals known as Hallmark, Swing Gold and Rubicon, at Hole Farm, near Toppesfield, Halstead, Essex.
Contrary to Regulation 12(1)(b) and regulation 38(1)(a) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010