Case study: the River Itchen

Case study: the River Itchen

Janina Gray, Head of Science and Policy
29 March 2021

How did sampling of the River Itchen expose 50 river sites as areas of concern from industrial pollution?

Salad from international food manufacturing company, Bakkavör, is regularly stocked on the shelves of major retailers such as M&S and Sainsbury’s. But at what cost to the environment.

In 2018 we provided evidence to the Environment Agency (EA) that pesticides, from Bakkavör’s Alresford salad washing plant, were entering the upper Itchen catchment and causing environmental damage to the water environment and its inhabitants. This came to a head in late 2020 with a decision from Bakkavör to close the site rather than implement measures to comply with increased monitoring standards imposed by the EA.

Against a backdrop of failing chemical health status – 100% of English waterbodies fail to comply with current standards – it is perhaps not unsurprising that the story is far from over.

Itchen 07 001

With sites like this one found across the length and breadth of the UK, what has the Bakkavör example highlighted?

Further investigation by the EA has demonstrated that just under 50 additional fresh produce washing sites may also be discharging pesticides into surrounding water environments without any monitoring. Sites identified included a wide range of food washing activities including potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and sugar.

At the end of January, the EA wrote to 22 of the aforementioned permit holders with a requirement to assess their effluent discharge for pesticide contamination. If pesticides are identified in the assessment, the permit holder will need to apply for a variation of their current discharge permit which will include strict monitoring requirements.

The current permitting process requires industry to notify the EA of harmful chemicals in industrial discharge which may require monitoring. It is evident that this mechanism for reporting has failed the environment. The focus needs to be a precautionary set of measures that require industry to prove their discharges are environmentally safe.

Permit holders have until the 30 April to provide the EA with supporting data or a sampling programme.

While we wait to hear the outcome of these investigations, the success of the original evidence is clear and highlights the strength in our invertebrate species-level sampling. It also shows the benefit of local river sampling and its capability to drive national momentum for environmental improvements.

What remains to be seen is the longer-term impact that rivers, already suffering the consequences of this pollution, will face.

Figure 1: Location of the permits currently of concern and under investigation.
Figure 1: Location of the permits currently of concern and under investigation.