Royal cheesemaker faces hefty fine over river pollution

The biggest cheesemaking factory in the UK is facing a huge fine after admitting pollution and odour charges.

Dairy Crest, which is owned by the Canadian firm Saputo, admitted 21 pollution incidents and permit breaches at its creamery near Camelford, Cornwall, since 2016.

The Davidstow Creamery in Cornwall is the biggest mature cheddar plant in the world and it makes Cathedral City mature cheddar cheese. It is the only cheddar maker to hold a royal warrant.

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The company is a major employer in Cornwall and buys milk from around 300 local farmers.

Truro Crown Court heard that the pollution incidents have led to fish kills in the River Inny in 2016 and 2018. The river is used for breeding Atlantic salmon and is home to native wild brown trout and smaller species such as bullheads and loaches.

But the impact of the incidents was spelt out in court by local resident Phil Potter, who moved to the area from Surrey with his family.

‘Horrendous smells’

Richard Banwell, prosecuting on behalf of the Environment Agency (EA), told the judge that since 2017 the Potter family had suffered from the “horrendous smells and more from the factory”.

They live a quarter of a mile from the plant and said the “eggy fish smells” meant they were unable to enjoy their garden and had to shut windows.

But he said the “bad stink” got worse and was even more horrendous leaving them with headaches and vision problems.

Mr Potter’s son, who suffers from asthma, had an air purifier fitted because the smells came into the property through air vents. He went to the plant to complain he received an apology for the problem but no solutions.

The EA said the smell came from the waste water treatment plant and had ordered the firm to reduce odour pollution.

Leaks and overspills

The court heard that there were “plant failures” as well as leaks and overspills. Mr Banwell said the firm failed to notify the EA about incidents which potentially could have a significant effect on the environment.

Judge Simon Carr intervened and said the agency did not have the resources to police, but could respond, and that notification was critical.

The company is awaiting sentencing after admitting 21 charges relating to pollution and odour incidents and permit breaches at its Davidstow Creamery.

Eleven charges relate to contravening environmental permits with discharges of waste into the River Inny between December 2015 and January 2021. Some charges refer to “biological sludge”, “suspended solids” and “partially treated creamery effluent”.

Two offences relate to breaking permits on odour between June 2016 and June 2020,and one charge of waiting for more than a month in August 2018 to tell the EA about discharge breaches.

And another count said the firm allowed discharges in August 2016 to such an extent to cause “the waters to be poisonous or injurious to fish or the spawn or food of fish”.

Six other charges will lie on file.

Previous admission

The firm has previously apologised to the EA, the court and to the public who have been affected.

The company said the offences arose after commissioning new processes unique in the UK.

It said: “Nonetheless, during the commissioning of the new processes, pollution was caused to the local river, the Upper River Inny, and our neighbours experienced unacceptable levels of odour pollution.”

It said it had undertaken a significant amount of work to rectify the “historic issues to which the prosecution relates”.

The firm will be sentenced on 23 June.