Mussel farmer wins battle over business ruined by sewage

Water company to pay price for polluting river estuary. Nicholas Schoon reports
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A West Country mussel farmer has won a legal battle against the water company whose sewage works destroyed his business.

South West Water has agreed to buy out Brian Hill's mussel farming licence in the Taw estuary and pay him substantial but undisclosed compensation. Mr Hill, who took over mussel farming there from his father in 1957, had claimed £40,000-a-year loss of earnings.

Yesterday Mr Hill, 60, said he was pleased with the settlement and still hoped the estuary water's quality could be improved to a point where mussels could again be farmed. ``It may be too late for me, but probably my son who is 30 will be able to go into mussel farming.''

The combined estuaries of the Taw and Torridge rivers in north Devon are among the most beautiful in the West Country but they have some of the worst sewage pollution.

Mr Hill, who has two children and two step-children, used to take about 50 tons a year of mussels from his beds next to the RAF's Chivenor airbase. In 1962, the Ministry of Agriculture granted him a 60-year licence allowing him exclusive rights to part of the estuary bed.

As the population built up around the estuary and farming intensified upriver, water quality deteriorated. The outfalls from sewage works were the single largest contributor.

Twenty years ago council environmental health officers ordered Mr Hill, who lives just outside Barnstaple, to put his freshly harvested mussels in clean water tanks to flush out the sewage bacteria, with ultra-violet light to kill the micro-organisms, before marketing them. The end came with the Government's implementation of the European Union's shellfish directive three years ago. Sewage levels in the estuary were so high that they were placed in Category D, with all shellfish harvesting banned. ``Before then we'd never wanted for anything,'' said Mr Hill, who funded the legal action with his own savings and a contribution from the Shellfish Association's fighting fund His solicitor, Peter Scott, sought compensation on the grounds that Mr Hill's statutory rights to farm mussels had been damaged by sewage pollution.

But he has also complained to the European Commission, arguing that the Government had broken European law in writing off mussel farming in the estuaries. Instead, he says, it should have insisted on a higher standard of treatment at South West Water's treatment works.

South West Water plans a multi-million pound programme of improvements at its works in order to comply with other European water laws - but not to the extent that mussel farming could resume. Mr Scott hopes that eventually the EU will order a higher standard, with the necessary extra stage of treatment with ultra-violet light to kill bacteria.

He is also in discussion with other mussel farmers with a view to taking action against other water companies.