10 April 1998

Its not just about

pollution and fines

Few farmers would jump for joy at the prospect of a visit from an Environment Agency

pollution control officer. But what is their job really like? Helen Lewis spent a day

with an inspector in Shropshire and north Powys

ASK any farmer what his worst nightmare is and the answer could be – the end of subsidies, twice-yearly IACS forms, or maybe a visit by the Environment Agency (EA). But it may come as a surprise that the latter is actually far more interested in preventing river pollution than dishing out hefty fines.

8.30am. Paul Hayward is one of those dreaded officials, a pollution control officer with the EA responsible for the River Severn and its tributaries throughout Shropshire and north Powys. I join Paul at his office in Shrewsbury to get an insight into what his work involves.

"Because this is mainly a rural area, 70% of all pollution incidents I deal with are directly caused by agriculture. Roughly 20% are due to industry which includes chemical spills from tanker accidents and factory fires and 10% are contamination from domestic sewage.

"On average this office gets at least one call a day reporting something suspicious. Either someone has spotted an obnoxious substance floating in the water or found some dead fish. However, about a quarter of these turn out to be false alarms," explains Paul.

As a result, all pollution control officers are on call 24 hours a day with whoever is nearest to the reported incident responding first ensuring it is dealt with swiftly – it doesnt take long for a dangerous chemical to travel a few miles down a fast-flowing river.

"The first step is to contact the person who reported the problem and get as much detail as possible. From this I can gauge what equipment I take and if I will need any other help. Once on the scene the priority is to prevent the pollution going any further and then to trace it back upstream to the source.

"We have equipment to remove oil from the river surface. However, if the pollution is due to silage effluent or slurry – which removes oxygen from water – we may have to rescue the fish first. Also, if the incident is particularly bad and could result in prosecution we must gather evidence in the form of samples and photographs too. Anyway, I doubt we will be doing any of that today as the majority of our work is taken up preventing pollution occurring in the first place," insists Paul.

9.30am. We leave the office behind and travel 30 miles (48km) over the border into Wales to the first visit of the day. When an application is made to build a new property, the planning authority always consults the EA. In most cases the plans show perfectly adequate sewage arrangements, however, in this case the application requires a site visit from Paul.

"The plans appear to show the sewage from the proposed new dwelling is to be piped into the sewage system at the pub next door. I need to check this system is adequate to cope with the extra quantity and will pose no threat to the nearby brook."

On arrival we find an extremely dilapidated septic tank and filter bed system which, although appearing to function, looks and sounds more like a prop for a horror movie and urgently requires extensive maintenance. It certainly could not cope with any extra workload. As a result, Paul will not recommend planning approval until more appropriate sewage disposal is arranged.

11.00am. From sewage to silage effluent. Our next call is at David Joness Moel Dolwen Farm near Llanerfyl in north Powys. Some weeks ago a routine water quality test taken from a stream three miles (4.8km) away had shown considerable pollution. More detailed sampling followed and the problem was traced to silage effluent from this farm.

Unknown to David, effluent had seeped through a crack in the floor of his silage pit, worked its way through the soil until it was picked up by a land drain. This subsequently discharged into a drainage ditch 183m (200yd) away which in turn carried the effluent directly into the stream.

As an immediate course of action to prevent any further contamination, Paul asked David to block off the drainage ditch and divert the effluent away from the watercourse and into the field. However, as a more permanent method the silage pit floor will need to be sealed. Today Paul returns and, to the relief of David, reports that the water seeping into the field now is clear and free of effluent.

1.30pm. Over lunch Paul explains a problem with the nearby river Gam and how this afternoons work could help improve the situation.

"Every classified watercourse has a target water quality level which we aim for. However, the monthly samples of the river Gam are showing a general lack of insect life as a result of sheep dip contamination. Today I want to visit some farms along the river, introduce myself and see if I can have a look at how the slurry, silage and sheep dipping is handled. I just want farmers to be aware of our concerns and to see if I can help improve their methods of handling farm waste safely.

"I feel this type of prevention work is very important – there is no point me just sitting in an office waiting for a pollution incident to occur if I can prevent one happening in the first place. On the whole farm pollution has decreased although we still get around 12 serious cases with silage effluent each year and are now very concerned with the new Synthetic Pyrethroid (SP) sheep dips.

"These are a real headache because farmers seem to think they are safer to use than organophosphate dip when, although they may be safer for human health, they are potentially hundreds of times more polluting to the environment. The SP insecticide can kill all river-dwelling insects leaving fish to starve. It is also slow to break down and we believe may stay active in river sediment from one season to another. It would only take one sheep, still wet from dipping in SP, to walk through a watercourse to cause a serious incident," insisted Paul.

Now he has vented his fears on the subject of sheep dips, I ask how this afternoons visits will help the situation.

"I hope the farmers will tell me how many sheep they dip and what product they use, show me their dipping and draining system, and where and how the spent dip is disposed of afterwards. If I know all this I can offer advice on the regulations surrounding sheep dip, any improvements in their methods or potential hazards. Hopefully, as a result we will see the water quality improve," said Paul.

2pm. The first of these prevention visits is at Dolwen Farm near Llanerfyl. Farm owner Tom Jones is probably one of the most clued-up farmers on water pollution in the country – hes has to be with a substantial stream running right through the centre of his yard. All the livestock buildings and manure heaps are situated on one bank while the other side contains the sheep handling and dipping facilities.

However, Tom points out the carefully constructed drains and solid mass concrete walls built to ensure no farm waste could enter the watercourse and satisfies Paul his farm poses no risk to the watercourse.

Our next call is at neighbouring Dolau Farm, home to Geraint Roberts where, although the river Gam does not pass through his yard it flows within 20m (65ft) of his livestock buildings.

Geraint is more than happy to show us around his dipping facilities and answer any questions. Paul explains to Geraint the benefits of using a degradent on the spent SP dip and then diluting it further with water before spreading by tanker at 5050 litres/ha (450gal/acre) – the legal rate.

4pm. We leave Dolau Farm behind and, while sitting in a lay-by poring over a map to find the location of the next farm, Pauls pager bleeps. A number of dead fish have been reported in a river in Shropshire and he has to get to the scene as quickly as possible. Due to the nature of the incident and the possibility of prosecution, I cannot attend. An interesting and enlightening day comes abruptly to an end.

Left: Discussing the dipping regulations with Tom Jones.

Below: Paul checks the diverted water for silage effluent before giving David Jones the all-clear.

A farmyard nightmare but Tom Jones has farm waste under control.

Examples of other slurry problems (unconnected with the farms mentioned in this article). Above: Sluice gate between slurry store and reception pit left open resulting in 181,840 litres (40,000gal) of slurry in the river. Below: Dirty water irrigation jetting head jammed causing field saturation.