October 2007 – Corporate
responsibility and river pollution
A few weeks ago anglers fishing on London’s river
Wandle witnessed the distressing sight of thousands of dead
fish drifting down the river. Within two days of the incident,
directors of Thames Water were admitting responsibility
for the fish kill that had been caused by a spillage of
bleach from one of its sewage treatment plants.
In fact the bleach was being used to clean the very filters
that the company had installed to ensure that its discharge
water met demanding UK and European standards.
“We don’t feel good about any of this. It shouldn’t
have happened,” said Richard Aylard, director of sustainability
and external affairs at Thames Water.
Sadly there is nothing new about fish kills in urban rivers
but the rapid reaction to this incident and swift admission
by the polluter shows how corporate attitudes are changing.
No long drawn out investigation here. No stonewalling. Instead
the company has met with various agencies and angling bodies
to draw up plans for regeneration.
Thames Water, however, is not alone in its positive response
to a river crisis. For years anglers fishing the Bourne
rivulet in Hampshire have complained of declining catches
that they have blamed on contaminated water discharged by
the watercress farm and salad washing operations run by
Salads at St Mary Bourne.
Unlike the Wandle, the Bourne rivulet has not been overtaken
by urbanisation. Watercress has been farmed on the site
for more than a hundred years, stretching back to the days
when Harry Plunket Greene, the Victorian opera singer, recalled
fishing the stream in one of angling’s best loved
books, Where The Bright Waters Meet.
The Bourne rivulet is not much more than a thin strip of
a chalk stream, but it holds some remarkable trout. I saw
fish there recently in the 4 lb class and caught a beauty
right in the middle of the farm, as wild as they come, unlike
the stocked fish you find in some stretches of chalk stream.
Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Anglers’
Conservation Association, whose organisation has taken
an active interest in both the Wandle and the Bourne, points
out that it is difficult to be definitive about fish populations.
But evidence did emerge a few years ago of a sharp decline
in the population of shrimp – part of a trout’s
diet – on the stretch of the rivulet just downstream
of the farm.
Several years and a number of studies later, the shrimp
decline was found to have been caused by mustard oil, the
very substance in watercress that gives the plant its anti-cancer
properties in humans.
The oil had been filtering in to the stream from the cleaning
process at the farm which uses chalk stream water to rinse
salad products that it sources not just in Hampshire, but
in different parts of the world.
Earlier this year the company sought to tackle the problem
by investing £250,000 in a new recycling system that
pumps the contaminated water back to the top of the farm
where it filters through the soil thus dissipating the mustard
oil. Within weeks of changing the pumping regime, shrimp
began to colonise the streams again. Looking under stones
I found plenty of shrimp, caddis and other aquatic insects.
Then in the spring Vitacress commissioned landscapers to
create new stretches of chalk stream by exposing outflows
and planting natural vegetation on sections that were previously
hidden in culverts. It’s difficult to see what else
the company could have done to improve the stream apart
from shifting its entire operation.
“I’m delighted if they have made things better,”
says Lloyd who believes nevertheless that the salad treatment
is on an “inappropriate scale” for a small stream.
He may have a point, but Vitacress is an important employer
in the locality. It runs a successful business that supplies
healthy products to some of the UK’s leading food
outlets such as Marks & Spencer and J Sainsbury.
“The fundamental thing is that people living in the
rural Hampshire countryside don’t like big businesses
and big lorries. You’ll never get over that,”
says Steve Rothwell, production and technical director at
But farming and fishing must learn to live side-by-side
in a spirit of mutual understanding. Companies and farms
that can respond to the concerns of anglers will win friends
in the long run. “We haven’t always seen eye
to eye but I’m please at the work that has been done
here,” says Michael Malyon, a landowner who has fishing
rights below the plant.
Both the Vitacress farm and the Thames Water treatment
plant are sitting on historic rivers that enjoy an iconic
status among many anglers. Frederic Halford, the dry fly
guru fished on the Wandle, as did Lord Nelson.
In Hampshire fishermen still make pilgrimages to Plunket
Greene’s grave in a quiet corner of the churchyard
at Hurstbourne Priors where the tranquillity is disturbed
only by the trickle of the stream. Fishing boxes and rusting
flies have been placed on the stone like offerings. Why
do people go there? I think it has something to do with
respect for a life well lived.
So is there a growing respect for rivers among business
and farming? It’s difficult to talk about respect
after a fish kill as devastating as that on the Wandle.
But the contrition at Thames Water is genuine, backed by
a determination to put things right, not least since it
must demonstrate to pension fund investors its commitment
Vitacress too has sought to reverse the damage of the
past, creating a conservation trust to look after wildlife
habitat associated with watercress and other salad crops.
Commercial interest can no longer be divorced from conservation.
See also: Do
fish feel pain?