House of Lords

Publication Date01 July 1972
DOI10.1177/002201837203600305
SubjectArticle
House
of
Lords
CAUSING
RIVER
POLLUTION
AN ABSOLUTE
OFFENCE
Alphacell
Ltd. v.
Woodward
ByS.2(1) of the Rivers (Preventing Pollution) Act 1951, it is
provided
that
"a
person commits an offence punishable
under
this
section-(a)
if
he causes or knowingly permits to enter a
stream any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter".
The
question
which came eventually before the House of Lords on the 3
May
1972 was whether the prosecution is required to establish
mens
rea
in order to obtain aconviction
under
this sub-section.
The
defendants in
Alphacell
Ltd. v.
Woodward
were manufacturers of
manilla fibres in a factory on the banks of a river.
The
fibres were
washed with water, primarily taken from the river. After the
washing process, the water was piped into settling tanks lying on
the
banks of the river.
The
water was then re-circulated
and
re-used in the washing process. A pumping system (and aspare
pumping system)
had
been installed in order to prevent this water
from overflowing into the river.
The
system
had
worked well
and
was inspected weekly.
The
intake section
of
the
pump
was
protected by a rose acting as a filter
and
it was examined
and
cleaned once a week. An inspector of the river authority observed
that
effluent was flowing over into the river
and
laid an informa-
tion alleging
that
the company
had
caused polluting
matter
to
enter the river, contrary to S.2(1)
of
the Act.
On
the
day
in question, the company's foreman in charge
of
the pumps
had
observed
that
the water-level
had
risen
and
had
switched on the emergency pump. An examination
of
the main
pump
disclosed
that
the impellor
had
become blocked with
bracken
and
other vegetation
that
had
got into the system through
the rose.
The
company was convicted
and
their conviction was
upheld by the majority of the Divisional Court: see 1972, IQ,.B.
123.
The
court was
of
opinion
that
the proper approach was to
determine whether the company's conduct was the cause
of
the
entry of the polluting
matter
into the river. As the question was a
purely factual one of causation, no question could arise relating to
the
intent or negligence
of
the company.
The
majority was of
opinion that, simply as a
matter
of causation, the company could
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