Afon Llynfi river pollution: not enough evidence, says Natural Resources Wales

Fifteen months after the brutal pollution of the River Llynfi in Powys, which wiped out all the wildlife in the river, Natural Resources Wales announce it has insufficient evidence to prosecute. But was this down to the 13-hour delay in responding? Andrew Griffiths reports.

Pollution on the Afon Llynfi

Fifteen months after a pollution incident on the Afon Llynfi, in Powys which killed an estimated 45,000 fish and wiped out much of the life in the river, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has finally admitted that it has insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.

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The agency was called immediately after the pollution occurred and while fish were still gasping for oxygen, but due to staff shortages on the ground that day, water samples were not taken until the following day, 13 hours after the pollution happened. NRW has so far refused to reveal if this delay resulted in a loss of evidence that might have allowed a successful prosecution to be brought.

At the time of the announcement that no further action was to be taken, Ann Weedy, Operations Manager for NRW in mid-Wales said: “Our officers have been appalled by the damage caused to the River Llynfi by this incident and are very disappointed that we have not been able to bring those responsible to justice.

“The River Llynfi is a Site of Special Scientific Interest in a Special Area of Conservation. The fact that such a significant number of aquatic animals died in the incident shows just how rich the wildlife was in this small tributary river.

“We have exhausted every lead and done everything we can to be able to prove what happened, but with the deepest regret, this investigation has now ended.”

The Afon Llynfi is a small tributary of the Wye and runs through the county of Powys. The pollution incident on 31 July 2020 was the third such tragedy in five years: one was relatively minor but the second resulted in another big fish kill from which the river was just recovering.

Dark waters – our ongoing investigation into the death of the River Llynfi

Back in July, over 10,000 fish were killed in a major pollution incident on the Afon Llynfi in Powys. We investigate the impact on local wildlife and water quality in this special report.

Angler, river bailiff and Vice-Chairman of Gwent Angling Society Dave Collins spoke movingly to me for BBC Countryfile Magazine about the aftermath of this latest pollution.

“Seeing a river where every fish is dead is one thing,” he told us. “To be actually standing in the margins and seeing brook lampreys and bullheads still squirming and in the process of dying is something else. You are actually witnessing  death, not the consequences of it.”

On hearing that NRW are not taking any further action, Collins says: “I am absolutely gutted. To see all of the efforts that we put in between 2016 and 2020 and to see that NRW has failed to find anybody responsible for that environmental disaster is shocking.”

In a statement, Gwent Angling Society, who leases fishing rights on the Afon Llynfi, said: As was the case after the fish kill in 2016, Gwent Angling Society will continue to invest its time and resources in promoting the recovery of its fisheries, and wider ecosystem, on the lower river.

“However, we believe the prospect of another acute pollution on the lower Llynfi is not a matter of ‘if’, but simply a matter of ‘when’, and we have no confidence that NRW is able either to prevent pollution or to prosecute those responsible.”

The Afon Llynfi pollution and NRW’s failure to find those responsible is under the spotlight as campaigners such as Fergal Sharkey have raised the issue of river pollution in the eyes of the public. The Llynfi is a short stretch of river with a correspondingly short list of suspects. Questions are being asked about how such an apparent ‘open and shut’ case has been allowed to fail.

Charles Watson, Chair of river campaigning group River Action says:

“No one can over-exaggerate the nature of this as an environmental catastrophe. To kill a river – what more can you do? But the fact is people think they can just do this and get away with it.”

Watson compares the crime to a “murder”.

Watson and River Action are running a campaign demanding that funding is doubled to environment protection agencies which suffered cuts of up to 75% during the years of austerity. The agencies have, Watson claims, been “defunded”.

“I imagine the individuals in NRW are mortified,” says Watson. “But the fact of the matter is, a murder was committed, and the cops did not get to the scene of the crime until 13 hours after the event and the proof has gone.”

The river bed of the Afon Llynfi is now silted and covered in algae, due to the pollution.
The river bed of the Afon Llynfi is now silted and covered in algae, due to the pollution.
Fergus Collins

On further questioning for this article regarding that 13 hour delay, Ann Weedy, Operations Manager for NRW Mid Wales said:

“Proving a source of pollution is difficult unless the source is identified during the incident itself. We were not able to witness the pollution taking place in this instance.

“On the evening of the incident, our duty officers had been responding to other high priority pollution incidents. This left one rested officer who could investigate, but the officer was two hours away from the Llynfi and would have arrived on the scene as it got dark. The decision not to send an officer immediately was made on health and safety grounds as it would have required the officer to work by themselves on an unfamiliar river in darkness for much of the night.  This was one of a number of high-priority incidents we were responding to that day.

“While we have officers who cover out of hours, this resource is limited. The health and safety of our staff is always paramount when we are investigating incidents and we often need to make difficult decisions on this basis.”

Whoever is responsible for polluting the Afon Llynfi on that late July day in 2020 should perhaps not yet be sleeping too easily in their beds at night. There is a prospect of a civil action being brought, where the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal prosecution, as was pursued by NRW.

Wildlife in the river has been destroyed.
Wildlife in the river has been destroyed.
Fergus Collins

Fish Legal represents anglers and protects their waters from pollution and other forms of environmental harm. In a statement regarding the latest pollution of the Afon Llynfi, Fish Legal said:

“Fish legal has an affected member club with fishing rights on the Afon Llynfi.  We have requested disclosure of Natural Resources Wales investigation file into the 2020 pollution. Once we have that we will consider whether there is sufficient evidence for a civil claim.”

Perhaps it would be fitting to give the last word to those who put so much work into the river, so much effort into restoring it from its previous setbacks, and who will no doubt be called upon to do so again: Gwent Angling Society, who say:

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“The wipe-out pollution incident on the Llynfi has shown that, as it stands, NRW’s pollution response is not fit for purpose.  Pollutions should not be accepted as ‘business as usual’.”