Owner wins battle over raw sewage on beach: Out-of-court settlement on pollution claim could have far-reaching consequences for water authorities

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The Independent Online
THE OWNER of a holiday complex who launched a pounds 1m legal action against a water company because his beach was regularly deluged with raw sewage yesterday won his battle to ensure the sewerage system is upgraded. The settlement could have far-reaching consequences for all water authorities.

While Mike Saltmarsh refused to disclose how much compensation he had won from South West Water, he was delighted with the out-of-court settlement and the company's agreement to take immediate action to improve the system to prevent an emergency drainage pipe spewing faecal material, condoms, panty-liners and sanitary towels on to a 1.2 kilometre stretch of north Devon coastline.

The settlement between the water company and the Croyde Bay Holiday complex owner, who faced costs of up to pounds 500,000 if he had lost the court action, was hailed as highly significant by the Marine Conservation Society.

'As far as we are concerned this is a landmark decision,' said Bill Foster, of the society, which publishes a new edition of the Good Beach Guide next Thursday.

'This is the first time a water company has been forced to make improvements to the system by an individual. They have crossed the Rubicon.'

Work will begin on Monday to build screens to filter out debris, while large new underground storage tanks will regulate the flow to prevent the system being overwhelmed. Replacement pipes should also stop seepage into the system.

But it has taken almost nine months to get the company to act after Mr Saltmarsh began his legal action, which accused South West Water of nuisance and negligence under common law for failing to include the half-mile cove in its pounds 900m coastal clean-up scheme.

The company had vowed to robustly defend the action until this week when Mr Saltmarsh signalled his intention to seek an injunction to stop any further discharge through the outfall. His move followed a disastrous period when sewage covered lawns and beaches at the pounds 2m complex near Barnstaple for seven out of nine days over Easter.

That marked the low point in the situation, which has deteriorated over the six years since Mr Saltmarsh paid pounds 1m for the complex and beach, which is one of the premier surfing spots in the country, and further pounds 2m improving it.

'In 1991, we were turned down for a European blue flag because of the sewage,' he said. 'Then we lost our membership of the Good Beach Guide, even though we'd bought an pounds 18,000 beach-cleaning machine.

'In July 1993, we had this enormous slick on our beach with algae, condoms, you name it, that lasted nine days. This year, in Reader's Digest, we were rated the 15th dirtiest beach for sewage in the UK.

'Last spring we had a surfer, in a coma 10 days and nearly died after picking up a virus surfing here. In September, another chap surfed here on the Thursday, a perfectly healthy non-smoking, non-drinking man, collapsed on the Friday, went on a support machine and eventually died of viral pneumonia. You can't prove absolutely that he caught it here, but it's building up a picture. It got so bad I had my public liability insurance withdrawn because of the risk.'

Mr Saltmarsh decided enough was enough last summer after he had videoed small children playing in a brown sewage wave.

'That was the day I went home to the wife and said, 'This can't go on. I can't run away from this any longer. You've got to face up to it and fight'. It was a relief when I decided to go for it.'

But by Easter Day this year nothing had changed. His neighbours, Mike and Carolyn Byrom, who run the Beach Bar pub, were re-opening for the first time this year after extensive winter renovations. Their bar was engulfed in a 6in flash flood of raw sewage. Heavy rain had caused the system to overload, blowing yet another fountain through Mr Saltmarsh's lawn and tipping faeces on to the sewage-lush algae covering the rock pools below an emergency overflow outlet.

'We couldn't open on the Sunday night and had to clear up on the Monday,' Mrs Byrom said. 'It came into the pub through the gentlemen's toilets. It was a little bit horrific to say the least, not very nice at all; clearing it up was even worse.'

But for the Byroms and Mr Saltmarsh the prospect of a disastrous summer which could have led to him being forced to close the beach seems to have faded. 'I am delighted that at the end of the day we prevailed,' Mr Saltmarsh said.

A South West Water spokesman said the settlement terms at Croyde meant that 'everybody wins, the environment and the people of Croyde'.

(Photograph and map omitted)