North Devon company fined for pollution that killed more than 9,000 fish

At least 6,000 fish have been killed in the River Mole. Picture: Environment Agency

At least 6,000 fish have been killed in the River Mole. Picture: Environment Agency - Credit: Archant

A North Devon company that caused a pollution incident which left more than 9,000 fish dead on the River Mole near South Molton has been fined £2,000 and ordered to pay £9,836 in costs. 

The company, A J Sing and Son Ltd, of Pillavins Farm, near South Molton, pleaded guilty when they appeared at Exeter Magistrates Court on Wednesday, July 28. 

Ryan Adams, an employee of A J Sing and Son Ltd at the time of the incident, also pleaded guilty, and was fined £667 with costs of £2,000. 

On Wednesday, July 31, 2019, Environment Officers were called to a fish kill on the River Mole near South Molton. They recorded more than 9,000 dead fish, including salmon, brown trout, sea trout, bullheads, stone loach and minnows, in the 4.7 kilometre stretch of the Mole and estimate that the total number of dead fish was around 15,600. Whole populations of salmonids, from mature adults to fry, were wiped out. 

Environment Officers found the cause of the fish kill to be anaerobic digestate that had been deposited onto fields the previous day by the company A J Sing and Son Ltd. 

The deposit of digestate was from a leaking pipe which had been spilt on July 30, 2019, during land spreading operations, and left on the land. The digestate made its way to the river after heavy rain washed it off the land into a tributary of the River Mole. 

Alun and Amanda Sing are directors of A J Sing and Son Ltd, which grows crops to feed the anaerobic digestion plant operated nearby by Condate Biogas Ltd. The resulting digestate is then tankered back to Pillavins Farm by Condate, where it is stored in a lagoon. 

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Pillavins Farm lies on the south side of the A361 North Devon link road near South Molton and at the time of the incident digestate was being spread on fields lying more than 1 kilometre away from the lagoon, on the opposite site of the road. 

To reach the fields, pipework took the digestate through a rainwater culvert under the A361 and pumps were used to maintain the pressure needed to push the digestate the long distance. 

The pipework was left in place for several days and Mr Adams, the company’s sole permanent employee, restarted the spreading operation on July 30, assisted by two self-employed sub-contractors. 

The court heard that A J Sing & Son Ltd were negligent in that they did not have systems in place to ensure that the proper checks had been made and to ensure that spills were properly dealt with; they used a method of delivery of digestate and equipment that introduced avoidable risks and used equipment that leaked. 

They also heard that Ryan Adams was negligent in spreading digestate when rain was forecast and in not cleaning up the spill. 

In court the Judge DJ Matthews quoted an Environment Agency fisheries enforcement officer, who said the fish kill was the worst he had seen in 30 years. 

Environment officer Nicola Rumsey said: “This was a truly shocking fish kill, on a previously pristine salmon river.  It was one of the largest fish kills ever recorded in Devon and Cornwall.  

“The discharge of digestate into the river had a devastating effect on the fish population. It may take a number of years for the fish population to fully recover. 

“Great care must be taken when applying digestate to land. Simple observation of the weather forecast and the forecast of rain should have been enough to halt the digestate spreading. 

“Only the right amounts of digestate must be evenly spread over land at appropriate times and when there is a crop or soil need. It should not be spread on steeply sloping land, close to field ditches and watercourses, on saturated or waterlogged land or prior to heavy rain falling. No digestate should be allowed to discharge to a watercourse.” 

If you see pollution or dead fish in a river, contact the 24/7 incident hotline on 0800 807060. 

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