HAZELDENE Foods – the firm at the centre of one of Wigan’s worst fish pollution incidents – is still unable to explain how it happened.
Wigan and Leigh Magistrates Court heard that they still have no answer for how pieces of wood and clothing, which blocked a macerating pump to trigger the eventual killer outfall, came to find their way into the large sump, which collects used food preparation water.
Jane Morgan, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, explained that they had been called to Scot Lane New Pools in early July 2010, when a distraught officer from the angling club found dead fish, and thousands of others gasping for air at the surface of the watercourse.
They also found a large quantity of vegetable and salad waste at the surface water sewer inlet, which takes land and roof run-off from some of the businesses in nearby Challenge Way, to maintain water levels at the fishery.
Inquiries led them to Hazeldene Foods, where the engineering manager told their investigator that a 24/7 pump had failed in the sump which collects preparation water. And, because the back-up pump was away for reconditioning, the system had back-filled and flooded the factory to a level of four inches.
They had decided to treat the emergency by using a free-standing submersible pump to push the water, containing salad matter, on to a grassy embankment nearby.
But it was only eight months later, in February, that the company acknowledged to EA prosecutors that the engineering manager, who had been off-site when the emergency occurred, had actually instructed staff to direct the outflow down a surface water drain on their site instead.
Jennifer Sewell, defending Hazeldene – Business of the Year winners in the Wigan Business Awards and recent sponsor of the highly successful recent Wigan Food Festival – said that the engineering manager didn’t have the legal authority to speak to the EA over the incident or its causes.
He had been disciplined internally for his conduct, which had been prompted by panic of the “potentially disastrous” effect that flooding could have on a factory governed by the food hygiene regulations.
She revealed that the firm has now invested heavily to make sure such a “freak set of circumstances” could never occur again, including now having three pumps (two as back-up) permanently on site, carrying out weekly checks on the condition of the sump, and installing a £10,500 sump guard to prevent foreign bodies blocking it up.
Ms Sewell said: “This incident was caused by a freak, one-off occurrence, which could not have been foreseen by the company, and they have now made every effort to prevent its recurrence in the future.”
Sentencing Hazeldene, the chairman of the bench commented that Hazeldene had been guilty of causing a “serious category one” level of pollution – brought about by a “unique set of circumstances”.
She said: “We cannot ignore the fact that an employee of the company lied, both to his employers and the investigating authorities.
“We accept that initially he acted quickly and decisively in an emergency situation in an attempt to prevent the possible flooding of the factory, and we can understand why he did what he did. But as an individual, he was clearly reckless.
“He did not know that the drain used would cause such pollution, but in our view he should have been aware of that risk due to his position within the company hierarchy.
“We accept that this was a freak one-off incident, which we are sure will never be repeated.
“We can’t, however, escape the fact that, despite all the mitigation, this was an extremely serious incident of pollution.”
Hazeldene employs more than 240 staff.
Outside the court, MD Simon Ball said that they were “extremely disappointed” to find themselves in court.
He said: “On discovering fully what had happened, Hazeldene immediately co-operated with the Environment Agency, and contacted the angling association independently to apologise for the incident, and pay compensation of £17,000 to cover the cost of replacing the fish and £2,900 to clean the pond.”