Northern Ireland Water pleads guilty to river pollution charge
Northern Ireland Water Limited has pleaded guilty to causing a pollution spill from one of its water stations in Co Londonderry.
The incident occurred near Fortwilliam Bridge, along a stretch of waterway close to the Maghera Road in Tobermore on February 15 last year.
It's the first time Northern Ireland Water, which is a publicly funded but limited company, has been prosecuted in a landmark case in the Crown Court.
A prosecution barrister said the reason why the prosecution was brought to the Crown Court was because of the seriousness of the pollution spillage, which he said had the potential to devastate the aquatic life in the river.
The prosecutor also told Judge Philip Babington that while the maximum fine for the offence in the Magistrate's Court was £20,000, the maximum fine in the Crown Court was unlimited.
The court was told that the company became responsible for Northern Ireland's water and sewerage systems just over ten years ago and that the company has seventy previous convictions for pollution spillages.
The prosecutor said in its latest audited accounts, Northern Ireland Water Limited had a turnover of £422m from which it had made a gross profit of £96 million.
The company's only stakeholder is the Department of Infrastructure to which, according to the latest audited accounts, the company had paid a dividend last year of £23m.
The prosecutor said at 2.24am. on February 15 of last year an alarm went off in the water station. However the field manager waited until 8 a.m. before notifying the area manager and an operator was not sent to the site of the pollution spill until 10.30am.
The prosecution barrister said during that eight hour long delay the pollution spillage continued because where was no automatic shut off in place as a preventative safeguard.
When the polluted water was analysed by scientists it was found to be 142 times over an EU directive limit for poor water quality.
The prosecutor said it was a serious pollution discharge which was completely preventable. He said the pollution spillage was compounded by Northern Ireland Water Limited's initially ineffective reactions and clean-up procedures.
"This was a serious breach which could have had potentially devastating consequences for the river life", he said.
Defence barrister John Rafferty said the spillage occurred because of a blockage in a pipe between the primary settlement tank and the sludge holding tank which was controlled by an electronically operated valve.
He said because of the blockage in the pipe the valve did not fully close which caused the spillage into the neighbouring river system.
Mr Rafferty said since this incident the valve is now operated manually rather then electronically.
The barrister conceded that the judgement call made after the activation of the alarm in the water station was, in this case, the wrong call which lead to a delay in staff arriving on site.
Judge Babington said: "They decided to ignore the potential damage threat to the river by not sending the area operative to the site until eight hours after the alarm was first raised at 2.24am. There was no initial response until 8am and no operative sent to the site until 10.30am."
The defence barrister said Northern Ireland Water Limited was the only publicly funded utility company in the UK and was responsible for thousands of such water stations throughout Northern Ireland. He said while the company had seventy previous convictions, there had been a considerable decrease in those convictions in recent years.
Mr Rafferty said because the public does not pay for water in Northern Ireland, the company depended upon its revenue by subsidy from the Department of Infrastructure and said any potentially heavy fine could impact on that subsidy level.
Judge Babington asked Mr Rafferty "Are you seriously saying to this court if I fine this company which made £96 millions in profits last year that Joe Bloggs out there is going to suffer?".
Mr Rafferty replied that all of the company's profits went to the Department of Infrastructure.
"The profits do not remain in the company's kitty", he said.
Judge Babington said he would sentence the company on Thursday and he ordered that the company's Director of Customer Delivery, Sean McAleese, should attend court for the sentencing hearing.
Belfast Telegraph Digital