Farm fined £34,000 for toxic river spill

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The company responsible for a chemical spill, which killed thousands of fish in a Halstead river, has been ordered to pay more than £65,000.

Around 15,300 fish died, and thousands more were rescued by the Environment Agency, following the toxic spill in Toppesfield Brook, a tributary of the River Colne, on June 13 last year.

Berwick Hall Farm was responsible for the pollution and was prosecuted at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.

The court heard 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 the river.

Anne-Lise McDonald, prosecuting, 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 were told that approximately 12,300 fish were killed in the River Colne and 3,000 were killed in the brook during the pollution, while Environment Agency fisheries officers rescued 7,700 fish.

Mrs McDonald said 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 had caught in a rut, tipping it over and spilling about 5,000 litres of agricultural chemicals.

After the spill, agency staff and fire crews dammed the brook and pumped the contaminated water on to adjacent fields throughout the night.

By the following morning, the fields were saturated, but downstream the water was still polluted.

In a written response to questions from the agency, the company said pipes in the bridge had been replaced earlier in the year but the bridge had been used safely since.

Mr Clark had been on his way to spray crops on the fields of Hole Farm when the accident happened. He had notified the Environment Agency.

It was suggested that significant rainfall may have made the surface of the bridge slippery or potentially unstable.

Biologists said that for 15km downstream from the spill, river wildlife was either dead or dying.

In mitigation, Stephanie Coates said that the company had acted swiftly to report the incident and had shown remorse.

The farm was fined £34,000 and ordered to pay full costs of £32,997.

After the hearing, Environment Agency officer Peter Cooke said the incident had a “catastrophic impact” on fish and aquatic life.