Government wins High Court case over River Wye pollution

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Government wins High Court case over River Wye pollution

The government has won a legal challenge brought by environmental campaigners over pollution in the River Wye.

Campaign group River Action argued that the Environment Agency had not been tough enough on farmers who it said had been spreading too much chicken manure on their fields.

But on Friday the High Court ruled that the EA and the UK government were implementing the law properly and were not required to pursue sanctions against farmers for every breach.

River Action had said that although they had lost the case they believed it had led to changes in the way the Environment Agency enforces laws around farming.

The Environment Agency said they had won on all counts.

“We are working to implement a more preventative, advice-led approach to monitoring and enforcement,” a spokesman said adding: “Anyone caught breaching environmental laws faces enforcement action, up to and including prosecution.”

River Action had said that the use of chicken manure had contributed to the environmental status of the Wye being officially downgraded to “unfavourable – declining” last year.

River Action brought the case arguing that the decline in the River Wye was partly the result of the Environment Agency failing to adequately enforce what are known as the “Farming Rules for Water”.

These rules, introduced in 2018, are designed to stop fertilisers running off farmers’ fields into streams and rivers.

Fertilisers – like chicken manure – add additional nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to rivers. This causes accelerated growth of algae and other plant life in a process called eutrophication which starves other organisms like fish of oxygen.

River Action had argued that the Environment Agency acted unlawfully by deliberately ignoring the rules under pressure from farmers and allowed them to add excessive amounts of chicken manure onto their farms as a fertiliser.

Studies by Lancaster University have shown that 70% of the phosphate in the River Wye catchment comes from agriculture.

Although not all of that is from the chicken industry it has seen the most dramatic expansion in this area, with more than 20 million chickens farmed here at any one time.

In his judgement in favour of the government Mr Justice Dove acknowledged there was pollution in the river.

“There is no dispute in this case that there are water quality issues in the Wye related to phosphate limits being exceeded within the catchment.”

He added that he recognised the concerns of River Action that there were not sufficient penalties for farmers breaching the rules but that the law did not require that the Environment Agency pursue a sanction for every breach.

So far there has been one prosecution under the farming rules but 11 further prosecutions against farmers for causing pollution under different environmental regulations.

“Thanks to River Action bringing its claim, the Environment Agency has changed its approach to enforcing the Farming Rules for Water,” River Action’s chairman Charles Watson said after Friday’s ruling.

“While the judge states the latter point is grounds to justify to reject River Action’s belief that the EA has acted unlawfully, we remain concerned that there is widespread evidence that agricultural regulations are still being broken across the Wye Catchment and that the EA is still not being held accountable for its failure to enforce the law.”

River Action, along with other campaigning groups, have continued to call for the establishment of a water protection zone giving regulators the power to monitor and control potentially polluting substances.

One of the biggest producers of chicken in the catchment is Avara foods, which processes two million birds at its Hereford factory each week. It is being sued by law firm Leigh Day for their alleged contribution to River Wye pollution.

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