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First legal move in River Wye chicken pollution claim

Lawyers representing hundreds of people and businesses impacted by River Wye pollution have written to Avara Foods, Freemans of Newent and Cargill PLC in the first stage of a major civil action.

Posted on 09 July 2024

Law firm Leigh Day has sent a ‘letter before action’ (LBA) to the companies its clients believe are behind industrial scale chicken production in the area, outlining the effects of resulting pollution on people living and working in the Wye catchment area.

The letter sets out details of the nuisance claim against the companies and gives them the opportunity to resolve the dispute before formal court proceedings get under way.

If a satisfactory response is not received by 20 August 2024, preparations will begin to issue the legal claim in the High Court.

The legal letter demands compensation for phosphorus, odour, noise and insect pollution it alleges has been caused by the roles of Avara Foods, its subsidiary Freemans of Newent and its 50 per cent shareholder Cargill PLC in industrial-scale poultry production in the area.

Avara and its subsidiary Freemans together run the largest poultry business in the Wye catchment area, controlling 120 intensive poultry units, and are a major supplier to supermarkets such as Tesco PLC, says the letter.

Cargill PLC imports phosphorus-rich soy which is used to feed the poultry in the units, it adds.

As such, Leigh Day’s clients allege that the companies are responsible for major phosphorus pollution in the Wye and that this has caused algae blooms, cutting oxygen supplies to the river and harmed wildlife and plant life for which the river was famous, it is alleged.

The effect of the pollution has been a massive negative impact on people’s enjoyment of the Wye and on businesses which depend on it thriving, the letter explains. 

The letter alleges that following a deal entered into by Cargill Meats Europe to supply Tesco PLC in 2013, poultry numbers increased in Hereford from 13 million to 18 million in the space of just four years.

The rapid growth resulted in a significant increase in the volume of poultry manure being produced in the Wye catchment. As chicken manure is very high in phosphorus, this placed significant pressure on the phosphorus load in the region, such that by 2021, the Wye catchment had too much phosphorus by about 2,000t P/year (7.7 kg/ha), nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average.

The amount of manure produced has led to more than is needed being spread on land in the Wye catchment. It is estimated that 90 per cent of manure phosphorus currently enters the River Wye and its tributaries, causing increasingly intense and frequent algal blooms.

The algal blooms prevent oxygen and sunlight from reaching the water below the surface, with effects including a 90 per cent reduction in Ranunculus and Atlantic salmon population migration numbers being down to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 a year, from 50,000, and angling catches down 94% from their peak in 1967.

Loss and damage suffered by people living and working in the Wye catchment includes the impact on properties near to the river, poorer water quality, poorer fishing, lower business income and a disruption to leisure and hobbies.

The claim will allege private nuisance, public nuisance and a breach of section 73(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, caused by the unlawful deposit of waste.

Leigh Day has given Avara Foods, Freemans of Newent and Cargill PLC until 20 August 2024 to respond to its letter with a proposed resolution to the claims.

If a satisfactory response is not received, preparations will begin to issue the legal claim in the High Court.

The legal claim is being led by Leigh Day partner Oliver Holland, who said:

“We are pleased to announce that the next step in this collective legal action has been taken. We have provided Avara Foods, Freemans of Newent and Cargill with a detailed Letter Before Action which sets out the factual and legal allegations of this claim. We hope that Avara, Freemans of Newent and Cargill will take this opportunity to engage constructively with the substance of the claim and work with us to avoid court proceedings being issued. However, if they do not, our clients will be issuing court proceedings and looking to proceed with this claim through the High Court.”

Oliver Holland
Corporate accountability Diesel emissions claims Group claims Modern slavery

Oliver Holland

Oliver specialises in international cases involving multinational corporations where environmental harm or human rights abuses have been alleged

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