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Distillers’ firm convicted of pollution after 2,000 fish killed

April 18th, 2022 7:05 AM

By Southern Star Team

Gerard McCarthy, left, and John O’Connell of West Cork Distillers leaving the court in Skibbereen.

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A DISCHARGE of effluent into the Ilen River in Skibbereen has resulted in a €1,000 windfall for 26 Tidy Town organisations throughout West Cork.

Judge James McNulty at Skibbereen District Court convicted West Cork Distillers of Marsh Road, Skibbereen, of causing or permitting polluting matters to enter the River Ilen; permitting or causing deleterious matter to enter the river; and discharging or permitting trade effluent to enter the river on July 21st, 2021.

However, Judge McNulty delayed the imposition of penalty to the April 26th sitting to allow the company time to produce 26 bank drafts made payable to the various tidy towns committees in West Cork.

If produced, the judge said he would deal with the company ‘leniently’.

Vincent Coakley, the solicitor prosecuting on behalf of the south western river basin district of Inland Fisheries Ireland, confirmed that the organisation had – for the first time in 25 years – issued proceedings against the directors of a company.

He said IFI did this because ‘there were further discharges and the company wasn’t addressing them.’

However, the summonses issued in respect of Gerard McCarthy, Ciaran Tobin, Jerry Houlihan, Denis Cregan, John Field, John O’Connell and Denis McCarthy were withdrawn at the start of proceedings on Tuesday and the company alone was prosecuted.

The judge held that the company was ‘in denial’ after it entered a guilty plea to the charges but argued – through its barrister Stephen O’Donoghue BL and one of the company’s founders, directors and shareholder John O’Connell – that the company, nor its discharge, could be held liable for the killing of 2,000 salmon, trout and flat fish over a 1km distance of the distillery on that day.

The barrister produced a report from a national newspaper in which the head of IFI said high temperatures and low water levels could result in fish kills, but Judge McNulty said a newspaper report did not constitute evidence.

John O’Connell gave evidence that he has a PhD, and has expert knowledge of chemistry. In evidence, he suggested several times that it was the heat and the low water levels that caused the fish kill until the judge remarked that he was continuing to ‘persist’ when he had been asked to ‘desist.’

The judge accepted evidence by Michael McPartland, a senior environmental officer with IFI, that the temperature on that date was 25 degrees and the water levels were low, but there was no evidence of fish dying anywhere else in West Cork other than the 1km distance from a pipe leading from WC Distillers.

The barrister said the company was of the opinion that the overflow – which consisted of sugar, water and yeast – did not cause any fish to be killed.

But speaking in layman’s terms, the judge noted that the effluent ‘sucked the oxygen’ out of the water and that when the oxygen was gone, the fish died.

Mr O’Donoghue explained that there was a surcharge on the system that day and it foamed over, which one witness likened to the opening of a bottle of cola.

Since then, the barrister said the sum of €126,000 has been invested to ensure it never happens again. He also said a storm return value had been put in place as an added protection.

The judge described the company’s stance as an ‘unreality’ and ‘politely declined the relevance of the submission’, but he said he had no wish to inflict reputational damage to the company, the manufacturers of whiskey generally, or West Cork as something other than a beautiful destination.

Judge McNulty said he was also mindful of the homegrown nature of the business, its entrepreneurial spirit, and the fact that it is providing employment to 140 people.

He noted that the company has a turnover approaching €54m, and a net profit of €4m, net assets of €22m, and modest borrowings, could ‘rustle up’ €26,000 for local tidy towns organisations.

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