South West Water's £50,000 fine for sewage leaks has been reduced to £15,000 following an appeal
A water company has had pollution fines slashed after blaming sewage leaks into a busy harbour on irresponsible boat owners.
South West Water was originally fined £50,000 for allowing raw sewage into 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 summer.
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.
‘Fines out of kilter’
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 Water’s 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.