Law Report: Strict liability for water pollution: Cambridge Water Co v Eastern Counties Leather plc - Court of Appeal (Sir Stephen Brown, President, Lord Justice Mann and Lord Justice Nolan), 19 November 1992

A person who by his actions, whether deliberate or accidental, caused the contamination of underground supplies of water, which another landowner was entitled to abstract in an uncontaminated condition, was strictly liable in the tort of nuisance under the rule in Ballard v Tomlinson (1885) 29 Ch D 115.

The Court of Appeal allowed an appeal by the plaintiff, Cambridge Water Co, against the dismissal by Mr Justice Kennedy on 31 July 1991 of its claim against Eastern Counties Leather plc for injunctive relief and damages in respect of the pollution of ground water. The pollution had prevented the plaintiff, a statutory water company, from continuing to supply to the public water pumped from its Sawston Mill borehole.

Piers Ashworth QC, and Lawrence West (Barlow Lyde & Gilbert) for the plaintiff; Philip Vallance QC, and David Hart (Berrymans & Co) for the defendants.

LORD JUSTICE MANN, giving the judgment of the court, said that in 1976 the plaintiff purchased land at Sawston Mill, which had a 30m (98.43ft) borehole through which water could be pumped from the chalk aquifer below. The water was 'wholesome' in accordance with then current standards of water quality; but in 1980 a European Council directive (No 80/778/EEC) required member states to fix water quality values by reference to specified parameters, including the maximum admissible concentration of organochlorine compounds such as tetrachloroethane, or perchloroethane (PCE).

The plaintiff discovered an unacceptably high level of PCE in the water from Sawston Mill. It ceased pumping water from there and carried out an investigation, as a result of which it claimed the PCE had originated from the defendant's premises in Sawston.

The defendant had been using organochlorines, including PCE, as solvents for the degreasing of pelts in its leather tanning processes. But, although it ceased using PCE in 1976, the judge found that spillages of PCE had contaminated, and continued to contaminate, the ground water, and there remained a significant reservoir of PCE within the chalk itself.

The judge rightly rejected the plaintiff's claim that the defendant was liable under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330.

The rule, which made a person liable for the event of an escape of something non-natural which he had brought onto his land, rather than for his actions, was inapposite to the present case, where liability attached by reason of the defendant's actions in spilling PCE.

This case was not distinguishable from Ballard v Tomlinson (1885) 29 Ch D 115, which was the leading authority on a landowner's 'natural' right to abstract, in an uncontaminated condition, such naturally occurring water as came beneath his land by percolation through undefined underground channels.

It was immaterial both that the plaintiff and defendant were not adjacent landowners, because the same aquifer was beneath the surface of each ownership, and that Tomlinson had caused the contamination by deliberately putting filth and waste into a well on his land, while the defendant's PCE had been spilt completely by accident. The situation was one where negligence played absolutely no part.

Where the nuisance was an interference with a natural right incidental to ownership, then the liability was a strict one.

Paul Magrath, Barrister

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003