Donegal County Council was fined €5,500 to include costs, at Donegal District Court yesterday (Monday) after they were castigated by Judge Kevin Kilrane for gross negligence in the protection of a tributary of the Eske river and its fish stocks.
“It’s difficult to see how Donegal County Council could be so guilty of gross negligence. The greatest care must be taken especially since they themselves are guardians of the environment,” he said as he imposed a fine of €2,000 and ordered them to pay €3,501 costs.
The council admitted permitting deleterious matter and sludge or other associated by-products of a water treatment process “to fall” into a tributary of the Eske on August 31 last.
Judge Kilrane heard how Donegal County Council left two valves open at a water treatment works. As a result sludge which should have gone into the Donegal town sewer system was discharged instead into a tributary of the River Eske in the adjoining townlands of Drumlaght and Drumlonagher.
Jacqueline Maloney of George V Maloney and Co. Solrs, the prosecuting solicitor on behalf of Inland Fisheries Ireland said that the council had a number of previous convictions going back to 1985, with four in 2010.
In evidence Inland Fisheries environmental officer Brendan Maguire told the court that he had investigated a disabled angling section on the Eske River and saw a discharge with two different colours of sludge.
Hr traced the discharge from the nearby water treatment plant. When he brought it to the attention of the authorities they were surprised as the two valves were supposed to be discharging into the town sewer, not into the river.
He saw two dead fish in what was a hugely important fishery stocking salmon, sea trout and brown trout. Five samples were taken in the area to determine the ph levels of the water and the amount of suspended solids. The results indicated that the water content was “grossly polluted”.
He said if the council hadn’t taken subsequent and immediate corrective action there would have been an ongoing problem, but he admitted: “The extent of the damage was quite local, I’ve seen a lot worse.”
Defence solicitor Denis O’Mahony said a council employee had turned the valves the wrong way and instead of turning them off, he inadvertently turned them on, causing the discharge. This he added, was because the conventional wisdom with valves was to open them clockwise and close them anti-clockwise. In this particular case, it had not happened. “It was human error,” he said.
He added that immediate steps were immediately taken, once they became aware of the problem, a full explanation was given to the Inland Fisheries, and remedial works were carried out.
Judge Kilrane said the council had a joint responsibility with the Inland Fisheries for the protection and control of the environment but in this instance the council was guilty of “gross negligence.”
The judge added: “The taxpayer has invested a very considerable sum of money to promote fish stocks in that area.”
He said the council employee wasn’t properly trained and it was simply not good enough that the council’s responsibility could end with what a member of staff may have done, in the course of his duties.