For a number of years the cockle gatherers of Carmarthenshire have been claiming that the deaths of cockles in the Burry Estuary and surrounding cockle beds were as a result of raw sewage polluting the beds. Today the UK has been found to be in breach of EU laws over the amount of sewage and waste water discharged into the sea off Carmarthenshire.
The cockle pickers have long claimed that the overflow pipes along the Burry Inlet near Llanelli, which are used to help stop flooding have been contaminating the beds.
Robert Griffiths represents the Llanelli cockle pickers and he has written to the marine and fisheries division pleading for them to come and witness the devastation of the beds. He claims that the pollution has cost the local economy millions of pounds and insists that all involved with the Burry Inlet should hold their heads in shame.
The cockle pickers had noticed annual mass cockle mortalities increasing in severity since 2002. They suggested that the mass mortalities coincide with capacity issues in the local sewer system allowing untreated sewage to be released into the Burry Inlet and surrounding areas. In June 2005, beaches were closed due to significant spills as a result of a broken pipe. That spill resulted in a legal case against Welsh Water when they were fined £20,000
Today’s judgement by the European Court of Justice ruled that the discharges have broken clean water laws in a special conservation area.
The Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Welsh Water said they were investing in improvements.
Though the UK has not been fined, it will have to pay legal costs in a case that also found a number of other breaches around the handling of waste water in England and Gibraltar.
The news will not give the cockle pickers much hope as Welsh Water continue to insist that the cockle deaths are not not due to their discharges.
Welsh Water says it is is investing in a £113m project to reduce the number of spills. They have been working on a ‘RainScape’ project around Llanelli, which involves reducing the amount of water that reaches the sewers through planting green spaces on streets and roofs to absorb rain and building channels to capture surface water.
Long term campaigner for cleaning up the estuary and safeguarding the livelihoods of the cockle pickers Bill Thomas said: “What can I say. It is a guilty verdict. The mitigation that Welsh Water have been undertaking improvements appears to have been taken into consideration. They will have to clean up their act along with all the other agencies involved. The cockle pickers won’t think much of this. The cockle pickers have taken this up from the start and they have been vindicated. It is thanks to the cockle pickers that the Burry Estuary will be protected from pollution from now on. Without reading the case notes it is difficult to comment. I am just glad they received a guilty verdict. Prior to 2005 the cockle pickers exported live cockles to Europe every week. They claim that they still have cockle mortalities and they are now lucky if they get 6 months work from the beds. I think that they should now look at trying to get compensation. They are under an agreement that they have to complete the schemes by 2020. We now have to wait to see how successful these schemes are. Hopefully there will be better monitoring. I am sure they would not wish to be taken to court.”
The UK argued the improvements would mean it could comply with EU clean water laws by 2020. However, the ECJ – which rules on disputes involving EU legislation – found the UK had acted “too late” and was failing in its obligations.The problems stem from the UK’s ageing Victorian sewers, engineering marvels of their time, but now out of date.
Bill Thomas concluded by saying:
“Carmarthenshire County Council still passes plans for huge numbers of houses. Everyone continues to do what they have always done NOTHING AT ALL.”