The toxic chemicals keep coming – a further threat in a struggling English chalkstream

Currently many of our rivers across the UK are impacted by a variety of undesirable inputs.  Influencing the future health of these important waterways is one of our key objectives. We continue to be extremely concerned about a worrying example of pollution by a business operating on the Upper Itchen in Hampshire.

Alresesford Salads, who process and package watercress and other salads into bags for supermarkets have applied for a change to its license to discharge chemicals directly into the river.  In the past, they have used chlorine to wash salads, and still use chlorine-based chemicals to clean down the processing plant at the end of the day’s production.

These chemicals are lethal to fish and aquatic insects.

Nick Measham from Salmon & Trout Conservation said:

“It is extraordinary that chlorine was ever allowed to be discharged into any UK river, but the fact that it was allowed into the Itchen, a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive, is staggering. And, if the proposed license variation goes through, the plant will still be discharging lethal chemicals.”

The Itchen is protected by the highest possible environmental legal status under EU law – the Habitats Directive and is classified as a Special Area of Conservation.  However, monitoring of the river by S&TC since 2013 for phosphates as well as water invertebrates since 2015 through its Riverfly Census, identifies that this once highly-prized river is critically degraded with the consequential loss of vital insects and other water invertebrates such as Gammarus Pulex – a freshwater shrimp – which is a core component of the food chain.

The Environment Agency is currently reviewing this new discharge variation licence for Alresford Salads through the National Permitting process for licencing discharges into watercourses.

Nick Measham, adds:

“This processing plant was first licensed by the Environment Agency in 2002. This was a mistake and it is hardly surprising that this once pristine chalkstream is now recording such dismal results.”

Recent monitoring on the Itchen by S&TC researchers measured Gammarus in depressingly low numbers. For example, under 100 Gammarus were recorded in many kick samples. 500 is the minimum benchmark we have agreed with the local Environment Agency, which represents a functioning, healthy system. In addition, riverfly richness was also below the figure expected of a river of this nature. This poor water insect outturn has a knock-on effect for all aquatic wildlife.

Nick Measham continues:

“We have always been opposed to the discharge of any effluent directly into the Itchen or any other river on precautionary grounds, but until now have not had the evidence to build a persuasive case to challenge the Environment Agency. Our monitoring over such a long period of time has certainly built a very strong case.”

The salad washing plant will continue to discharge cleaning chemicals that contain sufficient toxic materials to cause serious population crashes of Gammarus for some distance downstream of the discharge point.  The discharged chemicals react to form chloramines which are highly toxic even in very low concentrations in water.

Nick Measham explains:

“We are dismayed that there appears to be no understanding of the well documented combined toxicity of surfactants and chlorinated compounds found in the current and proposed cleaning chemicals used at Alresford Salads. Combined effects of chemical mixtures should be taken into account for sound ecological risk assessments.  Risk assessments made by both the chemical manufacturers and the product distributors of products containing those chemicals are unequivocal when they stipulate that such materials should not be allowed in waterways.”

In order to protect the Itchen from further destruction, we are keen to find solutions.

Nick Measham said:

“If this permit is granted it will have long-lasting implications for all aquatic life on the Itchen.  But In a stroke this issue could be resolved.  Alresford Salads could connect its operation to the main sewer, which is about 500 yards away.  Indeed, its nearby competitor, Vitacress has done just this on the Bourne Rivulet and pays Southern Water for the privilege.  This would mean further investment by this wealthy company,  but in the long term it would protect this once-famous river from potential chemical pollution from the salad washing plant.  This surely must be a priority for a Government environmental regulator and a company keen to bolster its environmental credentials.”

In addition, the charity is requesting that the Environment Agency’s National Permitting process is reviewed in light of the lessons learnt from this process on the Itchen.

Nick Measham concludes:

“We believe the public should be aware of these questionable decisions by our regulators who seem to put short-term business interests above environmental protection. Chemical discharge should not be allowed into any watercourse, especially a highly protected chalkstream. Alresford Salads who are owned by Bakkavor – a multi-national company, claim to be green but they are showing scant regard for protecting this important chalkstream in southern England.”

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