A west Cork distillery has agreed to donate €26,000 to a number of Tidy Town organisations in the area after a judge found that it was responsible for an illegal discharge of effluent into the Ilen River near Skibbereen which caused the deaths of some 2,000 fish.
West Cork Distillers of Marsh Road, Skibbereen pleaded guilty at Skibbereen District Court to three offences relating to the discharge of effluent into the Ilen River near the town on July 21st, 2021, which resulted in the deaths of salmon, brown trout and sea trout.
The company pleaded guilty that it did at or near Marsh, Marsh Road, Skibbereen cause or permit matter to enter waters at the Ilen River in contravention of Section 3 (1) of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 contrary to Section 3 (2) of the same Act.
The company also pleaded guilty that it did permit or cause deleterious matter to fall into the waters at the Ilen River otherwise than under and in accordance with a licence granted by the Minister, contrary to section 171 (1) of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act 1959.
The company also pleaded guilty that it did discharge/permit the discharge of trade effluent in the waters of the Ilen River otherwise than under and in accordance with a licence granted under Section 4 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 contrary to section 4 of the said Act.
Solicitor for Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), Vincent Coakley told Judge James McNulty that his instructions were to withdraw charges against each of seven named directors of West Cork Distillers relating to the same spillage in the light of the company pleading guilty to the three charges.
IFI Senior Environmental Officer Michael McPartland told the court that he received a call on the morning of July 21st, 2021, to say that there had been a fish kill on the Ilen River and he later visited the area where he met with IFI Inspector, David Lordan who pointed out around 2,000 dead fish.
He said the fish, which ranged from 10 lb salmon to small and juvenile trout, were found over a one km stretch of the river downstream of a discharge pipe from West Cork Distillers while no fish were found dead upstream of the discharge pipe where fish were still alive.
Water samples were taken at three locations, one 20m downstream of the discharge pipe, one at the discharge pipe and one 30 metres upstream of the discharge pipe and the first two samples suggested the effluent had in effect sucked out oxygen from the water and the fish suffocated.
Mr McPartland said he met with John O'Connell, a Director of West Cork Distilleries, on July 27th, and Mr O'Connell said there had been an issue with over-fermentation of product, which foamed and spilled out of vats and overflowed a protective bund to enter a storm water drain and the river.
Defence barrister, Stephen O’Donoghue BL said that while his clients were pleading guilty to the three charges relating to illegal discharges into the Ilen River, they did not accept that the discharge, which consisted of sugar and water and small quantities of yeast, was responsible for the fish kill.
He said that his clients believed that the fish kill was due to the exceptionally warm weather at the time which was recorded at 27.6 degrees, resulting in a water temperature of 20 degrees combined with a low flow of water in the Ilen.
Mr O’Donoghue said that his client, who had no previous convictions for pollution, believed that the incident was an exceptional event but had carried out €126,000 worth of remedial works including reducing the capacity of the vats and putting in electronic diagnostics to prevent any repeat spillage.
However, Judge McNulty said he found it difficult to accept the fish kill was not due to the discharge after hearing from Mr McPartland there had been no fish killed upstream of the discharge pipe or in other rivers in west Cork during this period when the same weather and temperatures prevailed.
West Cork Distillers Director, John O’Connell, who has a PhD in chemistry, re-iterated his view that the fish kill was not related to the discharge but Judge McNulty said that he believed the company was in denial in refusing to accept that the fish kill was linked to the discharged.
He asked for information about the company and Mr O’Connell presented him with draft company returns which showed the company, which was established in 2003 and employs 140 people, had a turnover of €54 million, net profits of €4 million and assets of €22 million in 2021.
Judge McNulty said that he was conscious of the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation in setting up SMEs that were important to the local economy in rural areas and he was anxious to avoid any reputational damage to the company, the Irish whiskey industry generally and west Cork.
He said he would be willing to deal with the case with some leniency if the company was willing to make 26 separate donations of €1,000 to each of the 26 Tidy Town organisations in west Cork and he adjourned the case for penalty until April 26th to allow the company make these donations.