Severn polluter to face court

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The Independent Online
POLLUTION inspectors plan to prosecute the firm that contaminated the drinking water of thousands of people around Worcester late last week.

The water crisis that began when a cocktail of six chemicals, including industrial solvents, flowed into the river Severn, left the people of Worcester without drinkable tap water on Friday and Saturday.

Severn Trent Water first advised 100,000 people in the city and surrounding villages on Friday morning not to drink the water. On Saturday afternoon 80,000 people were still without drinkable tap-water, and the all-clear was given to supplies by early evening.

The contamination led to complaints of nausea and vomiting from some people who had drunk tap-water before being alerted to the problem. It also caused a stampede of anxious residents to doctors' surgeries and shoppers hurrying to buy bottled water.

The pollution was traced early yesterday morning to a firm on the Wenn industrial estate in Shropshire, about 10 miles north of Shrewsbury, nearly 24 hours after consumers first complained that their water looked, smelt and tasted disgusting. Severn Trent Water said the solvents posed 'no significant health risk at the concentrations coming through the tap'. However, many industrial solvents are suspected of causing cancer.

The pollution got into the supply by flowing down a sewer, through Severn Trent Water's Wenn sewage works, and 79 miles down the river Severn until it reached Worcester's Barbourne treatment works. The water company has yet to name the firm responsible. Yesterday many people expressed anxiety about the water, which they continued drinking despite police attempts to alert the public to the contamination.

Fran Hudson, 29, manager of SupaSnaps in St Swithin Street in the city centre, was among the worst affected as the water in her home turned yellow and brackish. 'I've got two girls aged six and seven and I'm pregnant, expecting twins. Not only is it upsetting, I only heard at 1.30pm on Friday when my childminder rang to let me know. By then I'd been drinking the water all day.'

Beverley Dallow, 43, a school secretary who lives in Worcester, said she had rushed to buy bottled water. 'It's carbonated because all the still water had gone.' Terry Fawkes, 42, an unemployed man living in the village of Knightwick 10 miles from Worcester, said he had not even heard about the contamination until yesterday lunchtime. 'I've been drinking the water all day and yesterday and we did a wash last night. I feel a bit worried.'

One doctor, who would not give his name, said he had attended two patients - a middle-aged man and a two-year-old girl - who had been vomiting constantly because of the contaminated water.

Meanwhile, the phone lines for Severn Trent's emergency information line, the local police and the public health department's special freephone number were jammed by anxious callers. Nor did the city's headaches end there. Severn Trent reported that two of the 200 bowsers it had distributed in the area had been stolen. The city's MP, Peter Luff, described thieves selling their liquid booty to residents as 'contemptible'.

National River Authority teams worked around the clock taking hundreds of samples of water to check the source of the pollution, before it was traced at 2am yesterday morning. It plans to clean out the Severn by flushing it with water discharged from a reservoir upstream.

The authority says it hopes to prosecute the polluter, if only to recover the costs of the anti-pollution operation, and added that it would be inquiring why the water company found out about the pollution only when it reached consumers' taps.