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12:00 - 11 April 2006

The Environment Agency has been prosecuted for the first time after it polluted a river which it was in charge of protecting. A city angler brought the agency to court in a landmark case over the killing of hundreds of young salmon, trout and other fish.

The agency now faces a hefty fine after admitting causing the pollution in the only case brought against it in any court in the 10 years since it was set up.

Fly fisherman Ian Cook, who owns a salmon beat on the River Exe near Exeter, had to obtain written consent from Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett before he was allowed to bring the case.

The South West Office of the Environment Agency in Exeter and its contractor May Gurney, from Norwich, both admitted causing cement waste to poison fish in the River Barle last September.

The successful private prosecution was brought under section four of the little-known 1975 Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act.

Magistrates at Cullompton ruled the case was so severe that any fines should exceed the 5,000 maximum they are allowed to impose.

Magistrate Sarah Fry sent it to Exeter Crown Court where the agency faces an unlimited fine. Mrs Fry said: "This case raises enormous public concern."

Mr Cook, of Exwick, told the court hundreds of dead fish were seen in a stretch of the River Barle near Dulverton after the pollution.

Cement waste from building works which contained other hazardous chemicals should have been pumped away from the river but was instead allowed to flow into it.

Richard Banwell, for the Environment Agency, said: "This is a day of considerable sadness for the agency to find itself prosecuted for a pollution incident for the first time."

He said guidelines had been agreed with the contractors which would have reduced the risk of pollution, but they had not been followed.

Stephen Brooker, for contractor May Gurney, apologised and said procedures and working practices had been changed as a result of the incident.


17/5/06 - EA fined for pollution (BBC)