Cathedral City owner Saputo Dairy UK has issued a “sincere” apology after it was slapped with a record £1.52m fine for breaching pollution regulations at its Davidstow creamery in Cornwall.
The dairy giant, under its former (and still officially registered) name of Dairy Crest Limited, was sentenced at Truro Crown Court yesterday (23 June) after pleading guilty to 21 out of 27 charges brought by the Environment Agency at an earlier hearing last September.
Commenting after the sentencing, the EA said “the environmental performance of Dairy Crest has been unacceptable for too long and needs to significantly improve”, with Dairy Crest’s management of the creamery – which manufactures both Cathedral City and Davidstow cheese – falling “way short of the standards expected”, when it came to the management of liquid waste, odour and environmental reporting.
Truro Crown Court heard that effluent discharged into the River Inny had become more challenging to treat ever since Dairy Crest had introduced a greater focus to whey processing – particularly to produce baby milk powder and other products.
The multimillion-pound pivot towards dairy ingredients in the mid-2010s had been hailed by former Dairy Crest CEO Mark Allen at the time as offering the business “huge” opportunities.
However, this also resulted in “unacceptable pollution of the local river, which is a tributary of the River Tamar, causing significant harm to fish and other aquatic wildlife”, the EA said. Local residents had also been exposed to foul odours, it added.
Offences committed by the business included releasing a harmful biocide – used to clean the wastewater tanks and pipework – into the River Inny and killing thousands of fish over a two kilometre stretch on 16 August 2016.
Dairy Crest was also prosecuted for coating the River Inny with a noxious, black sludge for five kilometres in 2018, through a release of a mass of suspended solids in July and August 2018 (see image, below).
The court heard it also “consistently” exceeded limits on substances such as phosphorous and suspended solids entering the River Inny, from 2016 up to 2021.
Meanwhile, there were “numerous leaks” of part-treated effluent into nearby watercourses and onto the land. The business also failed to tell the EA within 24 hours of when things had gone significantly wrong on site, on seven separate occasions.
Delivering the sentence, Judge Simon Carr expressed the view he had not seen consistent performance evidenced by the company over a five-year period.
The judge identified a poor middle management culture as a contributing factor to the environmental harm caused, that should have been dealt with by senior management much sooner, the EA reported in a statement.
Judge Carr added it felt like there was “never a time without a problem and some of those responsible for the wastewater treatment plant felt bullied and unable to come forward”, the statement added.
Additionally, Judge Carr said he had been “moved” when reading testimony from residents whose lives had been “blighted” by odours.
The EA said it remained “deeply concerned” about the environmental performance of the site and its impact on the environment.
“As a large and well-established operator, Dairy Crest should be up to the job of maintaining the required environmental standards,” said EA area director Helen Dobby.
“Instead, it has over a period of many years, failed to comply with its environmental permit and not been able to protect local people and the environment,” she added.
“We acknowledge Dairy Crest has been taking steps to remedy the various problems, but unfortunately, these actions were not swift enough on many occasions and proved to be ineffective in stopping pollution.”
The fine represents the largest-ever issued for an Environment Agency conviction in the south west of England. Dairy Crest had already agreed to pay costs of £272,747. It posted a turnover £453.7m in the 12 months to 31 March 2021, up 0.5% on the previous year, according to accounts lodged with Companies House. Gross profit, meanwhile, rose by 6.8% to £114.2m.
In a statement, Saputo Dairy UK expressed its “sincere apologies to those who have been affected”.
Considerable work had been undertaken to rectify the historic issues to which the prosecution related, it claimed.
“The company continues to invest significant resources in the best technology, processes and people to further improve its environmental performance and minimise its impact on the local community,” the statement read.
“As the largest employer in north Cornwall, the company remains committed to supporting its local communities and becoming a better neighbour.”