Water company gets pollution fines slashed
Yachtsmen discharging raw sewage from their boats have been blamed for illness among youngsters bathing at a West Country port, a court heard.
And a water company had their own pollution fines slashed after blaming the sewage leaks into the busy harbour on irresponsible boat owners.
South West Water was originally fined £50,000 for allowing raw sewage
into Devon’s Salcombe harbour and across a busy beach for a week at the height of the holiday season.
The fines were reduced to £15,000 on appeal at Exeter Crown Court after
the water company argued that some of the detritus reported on the
shoreline came from the thousands of boats that use the estuary in the
Tourists reported becoming ill after swimming and paddling at the
polluted South Sands beach in Salcombe where a corroded pipe caused
sewage to leak onto the sands.
Children played in rock pools without them or their parents knowing that
the water contained pollution 4,500 times the legal limit.
An Environment Agency officer on holiday with his family in the South
Hams alerted colleagues after seeing sewage running down the side of the
South Sands beach in August 2012.
South West Water was alerted but work to trace the problem did not start
for three days and it was another four before the leak was stopped.
In the meantime the local South Hams Council had to put up warning signs
and staff from the water company and the Environment Agency staff
patrolled the sands to stop children going into the worst affected areas.
Judge Jeremy Griggs was shown photographs of the beach packed with
families on holiday at the beach and told that up to eight people staying
in the nearby camp site reported becoming ill.
The company also had a second, unrelated problem in the centre of
Salcombe where worried lifeboat crewmen and the harbourmaster complained
that children were playing in polluted water in the harbour.
That problem was caused by sewage seeping out of a damaged pipe into a
surface water outfall which ran into the harbour at Chapel End.
It was first reported on July 21 but engineers could not trace the source
of the occasional pollution for more than a month.
They discovered that in addition to the leak, a domestic outfall had been
wrongly routed into the waste water system by a bungling builder
The company also blamed irresponsible boat owners for much of the
pollution by pumping their waste straight into the harbour.
South West Water, which is based at Pennon House in Exeter, admitted two
offences of discharging sewage illegally and was originally fined a total
of £50,000 with £10,300 costs by Magistrates at Torquay in November.
They appealed to Exeter Crown Court and the fines were cut to a total of
£15,000 of which £10,000 was for the leak at South Sands and £5,000 for
the pollution at Chapel End.
Judge Griggs, sitting with two lay magistrates, said:’We are all
satisfied the level of fines was out of kilter with what was appropriate
for this offending.
‘The facts have been fully explained to us and the degree of culpability
as not to justify the levels of the fines.
‘At Chapel End the transfer of sewage from South West Water¹s pipes was
not capable of producing the detritus found on the shore.
‘Analysis established it was in part probably caused by a misconnection
and also likely to have come from the thousands of boats that use the
Salcombe estuary and discharge into it contrary to procedures and advice.’
He said the company should have tackled the South Sands pollution more
promptly but accepted their emergency crew had a more urgent call to a
sewage leak at a school in East Devon.
Miss Judith Constable, prosecuting, said the South Sands pollution was
spotted by an officer on holiday on Monday August 6, 2012 and traced to a
small leak in a pipe which had not been replaced during recent
The SWW team arrived on August 9 after being told by EA officer Peter
Ball that the public were swimming in the polluted water.
Miss Constable said:’Mr Ball encouraged on the beach not to go anywhere
near the sewage. On August 10 the council were asked to put up notices
and signs were put up the next day.
‘Mr Ball suggested SWW should sort things out more quickly. There was a
concern for public health, given this was August and this was a popular
holiday beach. It was considered if the area needed to be cordoned off.
‘The photographs show children playing near the rock pool at the bottom
of the trickle of sewage. Mr Ball saw small children climbing on the
rocks wearing flip flops and saw they had been walking through sewage.
‘The owner of the nearby camp site said his customers were upset by the
pollution on the beach and there were six to eight complaints of illness
after swimming in the sea. We cannot say if they were caused by swimming,
but there were concerns.’
She said the problem at Chapel End was unrelated and caused by sewage
leaking from a damaged pipe into a neighbouring drain which emptied into
She said a lifeboat mechanic made the first report and there were
concerns that children were fishing or paddling in the water.
The problem was intermittent and was eventually traced in August after a
further pollution incident which led to complaints from the
harbourmaster, sailors and tourists.
Tests at both South Sands and Chapel End showed coliform bacteria levels
of 9 million per 100 millilitres. The approved level for bathing waters
She said SWW have 112 previous convictions including one in which they
were fined £24,000 for polluting Chapel End just seven weeks before the
Mr Martin Meeke, QC, defending, said the company had acted promptly over
both problems and repaired them as soon as possible.
He said Chapel End was not a designated beach and was a dinghy landing
area and he said some of the problem arose from discharges from visiting
He said their efforts to repair both leaks had been hampered by the
problem of getting access to Salcombe at the height of the summer and the
council¹s reluctance to close South Sands over an August weekend.
He said the company has more than 9,000 miles of sewers and tries to keep
them all up to date. It has spent millions on Salcombe but the South
Sands leak was from a pipe which serves just four homes.
He said:’This was not a major sewer. To check the sewers every year would
be to put our water rates through the roof.’
Mr Meeke said the sewage was carried out to sea by the tide and South
Sands passed a water quality test taken half way through the spill.
He said:’Either of these discharges is a drop in the ocean when he tide
works its magic. It introduces a very emotional component to talk about
children in flip flops walking through sewage.’