Don’t let your dog swim in these waters!

Sometimes, one just has to hold one’s head in shame ….

… at the madness that we humans are capable of.

I included this sub-heading in the draft of this post last Thursday intending to make it Friday’s post then changed my mind. Hence the reason behind me writing in Friday’s post:

I was looking at a recent George Monbiot essay and getting myself all wound up about it, thinking that it should be today’s post. Then I thought, “Come on, Paul, end the week on a gentle tone.”

In the light of events in Paris last Friday, I had no idea how pertinent my sub-heading was!

What wound me up, so to speak, was a recent essay from George Monbiot about the damage being done to a Devon river; the River Culm. This river was known to me in the days that I lived in South Devon and had my Piper Super Cub based at Dunkeswell Airfield that was not far from the Culm.

Dunkeswell Airfield
Dunkeswell Airfield

So with no further ado, here is George Monbiot’s essay republished with Mr. Monbiot’s kind permission.


Strategic Incompetence

12th November 2015

The agencies supposed to protect the living world have been neutered, and polluters and wildlife destroyers now have a free hand.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 12th November 2015

It could scarcely have been a starker case. The river I came across in Devon six weeks ago, and described in the Guardian, was so polluted that I could smell it from 50 metres away. Farm slurry pouring into the water, from a pipe that I traced back to a dairy farm, had wiped out almost all the life in the stretch of River Culm I explored.

All that now grew on the riverbed were long, feathery growths of sewage fungus. An expert on freshwater pollution I consulted told me that the extent of these growths showed the poisoning of the river was “chronic and severe”.

Here, as a reminder of what I saw, are some of the pictures I took:

Sewage fungus covering the river bed.
Sewage fungus covering the river bed.

Slurry pouring from a pipe cut into the riverbank:

Slurry outfall just above the river.
Slurry outfall just above the river.

And mingling with the clear water of the river:

The slurry entering the river.

I reported the pollution to the Environment Agency’s hotline. It told me it was taking the matter seriously. So when I received its report on the outcome of its investigation, I nearly fell off my chair.

It had decided to take no action against the farmer, as “the long term ecological impacts on the environment were fortunately low”. How did it know? Because there was “no evidence of a fish kill”.

Why in the name of all that’s holy should there be evidence of a fish kill? This is a chronic pollution case, not an acute one. Fish kills are what you see when a sudden poisoning occurs, as pollutants are flushed into a healthy living system. Chronic pollution deprives fish of their habitats and prey, but no investigator in their right mind would expect to see them floating belly up in the river as a result. They are simply absent from places where you would otherwise have found them.

And if a riverbed covered in nothing but sewage fungus suggests a “low” ecological impact, I dread to think what a high one looks like.

The same inability to distinguish between an acute event and a chronic one was revealed by another of the agency’s statements: the pollution “had a short term impact”. The slurry had plainly been pouring out of the pipe for months, as the luxuriant growths of sewage fungus show. It would doubtless have continued, had I not reported it.

The Environment Agency also told me that it had inspected the farm, and found no problems with the infrastructure, as there was plenty of space for slurry storage under the floor of the barn where the cows were kept. But, the problem, as I had explained to them, had nothing to do with slurry storage in the barn. It was caused by leakage from the outdoor slurry lagoons, where I found cow manure pouring down the hill.

They could scarcely have made a bigger mess of their investigation if they had tried. The mistakes the agency made are so fundamental and so obvious that it makes me wonder whether they are mistakes at all. What does a farmer have to do to get prosecuted these days, detonate an atom bomb?

If this were an isolated case, you could put it down to ineptitude, albeit ineptitude raised to the status of an Olympic sport. But responses like this are now the norm at the Environment Agency. It has been so brutally disciplined by cuts and by ministers’ demands that it leave farms and other businesses alone that it is now almost incapable of enforcement.

Even when the fish kills it appears to see as the only real proof of pollution do occur, in the great majority of cases it doesn’t even bother to assess them, let alone investigate and prosecute. Freedom of information requests by the environmental group Fish Legal reveal that the agency sent its investigators to visit just 16% of reported fish kills.

There was massive regional variation. While in the Anglian Central region, covering parts of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and surrounding counties, the agency inspected 61% of these events, in Devon they investigated only 3%. (I suspect that it was only because I’m a journalist for a national newspaper that they came out at all in the case I reported). In the fishery areas on either side of it – Cornwall and Wessex – the inspection rate was, er, 0%. If you want to pollute rivers in these regions, there’s nothing stopping you.

The Environment Agency no longer prosecutes even some of the most extreme pollution events. In 2013, a farmer in Somerset released what the agency called a “tsunami of slurry” into the Wellow Brook. One inspector said it was the worst pollution she had seen in 17 years. But the agency dithered for a year before striking a private agreement with the farmer, allowing him to avoid prosecution, a criminal record, a massive fine and court costs, by giving £5000 to a local charity.

New rules imposed by the government means that such under-the-counter deals, which now have a name of their own – enforcement undertakings – are likely to become more common. They are a parody of justice: arbitrary, opaque and wide open to influence-peddling, special pleading and corruption.

I see the agency’s farcical investigation of the pollution incident I reported as strategic incompetence, designed to avoid conflict with powerful landowners. Were it to follow any other strategy, it would run into trouble with the government.

These problems are likely to become even more severe, when the new cuts the environment department (Defra) has just agreed with the Treasury take effect. An analysis by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts reveals that, once the new reductions bite, the government’s spending on wildlife conservation, air quality and water pollution will have declined by nearly 80% in real terms since 2009/10.

It’s all up for grabs now: if you want to wreck the living world, the government is not going to stop you. Those who have power, agency, money or land can – metaphorically and literally – dump their crap on the rest of us.

Never mind that the government is now breaking European law left right and centre, spectacularly failing, for example, to ensure that all aquatic ecosystems are in good health by the end of this year, as it is supposed to do under the water framework directive. It no longer seems to care. It would rather use your tax money to pay fines to the European Commission than enforce the law against polluters.

I’ve heard the same description of Liz Truss, the secretary of state for environment, who oversees the work of the Environment Agency, from several people over the past few months. “Worse than Owen Paterson”. At first, I refused to take it seriously. It’s the kind of statement that is usually employed as hyperbole, such as “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan”, or “more deluded than Tony Blair”. But in this case, they aren’t joking. Preposterous as the notion of any environment secretary being worse than Mr Paterson might seem, they mean it.

Nowhere, as far as I can discover, in Liz Truss’s speeches or writing before she was appointed, is there any sign of prior interest in the natural world or its protection. What we see instead is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of market fundamentalism on this side of the Atlantic. She founded the Conservative Free Enterprise Group, and was co-author of the book Britannia Unchained, that laid out a terrifying vision of a nation run by raw economic power, without effective social or environmental protection. Now she has a chance to put that vision into practice.

Those who have tried to engage with her describe her as indissolubly wedded to a set of theories about how the world should be, that are impervious to argument, facts or experience. She was among the first ministers to put her own department on the block in the latest spending review, volunteering massive cuts. She seems determined to dismantle the protections that secure our quality of life: the rules and agencies defending the places and wildlife we love.

Bureaucracy and regulation are concepts we have been taught to hate, through relentless propaganda in the media. But they are essential pillars of civilisation. They make the difference between a decent society and a barbarous one.


While this essay from Monbiot clearly concerns a river in the South-West of England and may therefore not relate to readers in other parts of the UK or the world, those closing sentences [my emphasis] do relate to all of us wherever we are on this planet.

Bureaucracy and regulation are concepts we have been taught to hate, through relentless propaganda in the media. But they are essential pillars of civilisation. They make the difference between a decent society and a barbarous one.

Tomorrow, I will return to Piper Cubs flying out of Dunkeswell!

20 thoughts on “Don’t let your dog swim in these waters!

  1. Thanks Paul. Although I now live in Ireland I often read his posts in the Guardian. He writes so well. I also feel some sort of connection as I used to live and work in his ‘patch’ in Machynlleth in mid Wales. The problems of pollution and the ignorance and blinkered attitude shown in your post can be so saddening and infuriating.


    1. You are most welcome, and good to hear from you. I have long been an admirer of George Monbiot’s writings and was very appreciative when he granted me permission to republish his essays as so many of them, as with Patrice Ayme, shine a bright light on the issues facing humankind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have lived adjacent to farms here in England for most of my adult life, and have been frequently appalled at how their owners flout regulations – removing the horns of cattle with bolt cutters rather than paying vets to do it was always a favourite wriggle.


  3. To self quote my latest:
    Truth is not Politically Correct. Denying this, pretending that truth is Politically Correct, is the mother of all problems with the present management of the entire planet. And that’s the first thing which is wrong with today’s political practice. And this is what leads to war and terrorism, let alone biosphere devastation, as observed today.

    So why do we have this mood hostile to truth? Because it profits the powers that be. Hostility to truth makes people stupid. Stupid animals can be led by the nose more easily that those who are very clever.

    [And so on…]


      1. Bloody hell! (If you’ll forgive the expression!) I will quote a little from that Guardian article when I am in front of my PC. The downstream consequences, literally as well as metaphorically, must be horrific; for people, wildlife, and plants and crops.


      2. Try these few paragraphs:

        Asked whether she still had confidence in Brazilian mining regulations, Ramos [Marilene Ramos, president of Ibama, the federal environmental agency] she believed safety measures needed to be revised in the wake of this disaster. “It cannot be right that in the last 12 years we have had five accidents in the state of Minas Gerais alone,” she said.

        Early next week the mudslide is expected to reach the Atlantic, with a potentially devastating impact on the fishing communities along the coast of the state of Espírito Santo .

        On a visit to the affected region on Thursday, President Dilma Rousseff described the incident as “possibly the biggest environmental disaster to have impacted one of the major regions of our country”.

        She compared the scale of the damage to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and laid the blame squarely on Samarco.


      3. “possibly the biggest environmental disaster to have impacted one of the major regions of our country”.

        Which explains why it took her 7 days to even visit the site. Our president is atrocious. I have no words for how dangerously incompetent she is.


  4. Thank you Paul for bringing this article to our attention.. All too often it seems Bureaucracy will turn the other way to the Major things that impact upon our environment.. Yet on the little things come down hard.. Nothing surprises me any more…
    We as a community did some complaining about the pollution in a nearby small stream, Dogs were getting ill after swimming and playing in it.. it appeared a local sewage treatment works was not doing it’s job properly and it was being discharged without being given the Full treatment.. ( the smell that drifted across was awful )… We were told some process had gone wrong .. But that didn’t give them the right to discharge untreated water back into the stream..
    The last couple of years its been much improved…

    Wishing you a wonderful Day to you both. Sue


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