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Axe slurry pollution adds poignancy to 2017 letter to Welsh Environment Secretary

Axe slurry pollution 'unsurprising', so what happened to 2017 "measures' to Welsh Secretary?

This post is written as the full scale of the latest slurry leak to hit the Axe Catchment, this time the River Coly tributary, is unfolding. The regional BBC were reporting this on social media as the ‘loss of 100,000 litres of slurry from a storage tank’ on the evening of the incident.

The tragedy of this accident is matched only by its inevitability. FF&FT exclusively reported an internal Environment Agency report into a regulatory clamp-down on the river Axe catchment - a catchment revealed to be blighted by the intensive dairy farming industry. We learned that 95% of farms were failing to meet slurry storage requirements, and 49% were polluting the river. This has been going on for years, it is nothing new. But eventually something has to give.

For me, this pulled into sharp focus the research I have been conducting into the intensive dairy farming industry in Wales. How many more ‘accidents’ out there waiting to happen? That is what leaves me shaking my head in despair about this latest Axe catchment disaster: we knew - why didn’t we act?

Meanwhile, back in Wales:

In July 2017, the then Chair of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) Diane McCrea, wrote an extraordinary letter to Lesley Griffiths, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs.

This nine-page letter is headed ‘Tackling Agricultural Pollution’ and it is concerning the “unacceptable number of slurry pollution incidents that have been experienced across Wales”. It then goes on to outline the scope of the problem, and what, in NRW’s view, should be done to address it.

It concludes:
“Minister, I urge you to consider the ways forward we propose to tackle this problem. As you will appreciate we are fully committed to playing our part to resolve the problem of agricultural pollution in Wales.”

There is much of interest in this letter, but this in particular caught my eye:
(From section 2.2:)
"2.2. Silage & Slurry Storage Regulations. NRW is also working with E&RA staff on the forthcoming revisions to the Silage & Slurry Storage Regulations. We believe that the risks of agricultural pollution could be significantly reduced if all newly constructed stores could be inspected at various stages of the design and construction process (paralleling the requirements of the Building Regulations) rather than just on completion.

Additional measures are also needed in respect of those (potentially higher risk) stores constructed prior to 1991 and which are currently exempt under the existing Slurry, Silage and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) Regulations. We are currently looking to amend our own reporting procedures so we can more accurately establish future slurry incidents arising from failures within exempt structures." [My italics]

This letter was written in July 2017 and I am not aware of any data that gives slurry incidents resulting from structures built prior to 1991.

The pre-1991 exemption can act as a regulatory incentive for farmers to delay upgrading their storage facilities for as long as possible. NRW describe pre-1991 structures as ‘potentially higher risk’ (see above extract) so I am interested to what degree this exemption adds to the risk of slurry ‘accidents’ across Wales.

I have put in a request to NRW to see if they have compiled this data yet. I’ve also asked for figures for the total number of pre 1991 slurry storage facilities, and as a percentage as the whole across Wales.

This is a link to the letter.

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