Whisky companies rapped for polluting rivers

Two major whisky companies have been reprimanded by the Scottish Government’s environmental watchdog after leaks which breached legal limits, polluted rivers with oil and “sewage fungus” and killed wildlife.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) forced William Grant & Sons and Chivas Brothers to take action to prevent more spillages from their Glenfiddich and Glen Keith distilleries on Speyside. The companies also made payments totalling £36,100 to Sepa and local conservation groups.

Campaigners argued that pollution could “devastate” rivers and endanger public health. They were concerned that polluters were getting off “too lightly” and called on Sepa to “show it has teeth”.

Sepa has published a list of “enforcement undertakings” it accepted from companies in 2022 following pollution incidents. These are promises made by those who have broken environmental rules in order to try and avoid fines and other penalties.

Two of the five undertakings were from the £6 billion whisky industry, which trades on its environmental image. The Ferret has previously reported on climate pollution and environmental breaches by whisky companies.

William Grant told Sepa that fermented liquid leaked from its famous Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown in January 2022. The leak caused “sewage fungus” to spread across the River Fiddich for 1.3 kilometres, the company said.

An assessment at the time by Sepa “indicated an impact upon the river invertebrates.” Freshwater invertebrates include insects, worms, shrimps, snails and other small animals vital for ecological health.

According to Grant’s undertaking, the leak had been caused by the failure of cooling equipment when pressure was increased to aid cleaning. The failure was blamed on “operator error” and staff had “since been retrained on how to operate the system correctly.”

Whisky production ceased while the problem was fixed, resulting in a loss of £6,000 and an increase of £35,000 in energy costs. The company also promised to make a donation of £12,000 to the Spey Foundation for research into river wildlife and a “voluntary contribution” of £2,500 towards Sepa’s costs.

Whisky companies rapped for polluting rivers 3
Whisky barrels at Glenfiddich distillery (photo thanks to iStock/jgshields).

Chivas gave Sepa a similar legal undertaking in 2022 after its Glen Keith distillery in Banffshire spilled 300 litres of oil along four kilometres of the River Isla in 2018. An assessment by Sepa assessment suggested a “limited” impact on invertebrates, the company said.

According to the undertaking, a storage tank overflowed while being loaded from an “unexpected” evening tanker delivery. The tank’s capacity was “incorrectly deemed to be sufficient” and an embankment meant to prevent leakage into the river failed.

Chivas reduced the working level of the storage tank, repaired the embankment and said it would check embankments at other locations. It also promised to donate £12,000 for environmental improvements by Devon, Bogie and Isla Rivers Trust, and to pay £9,600 towards Sepa’s costs.

The three other enforcement undertakings accepted by Sepa in 2022 included one from an unnamed farm which leaked slurry into the Allan Water, near Dunblane, in August 2021 and killed fish.

Repair work on a sewage pipe also caused pollution of the River Ayr in June 2021. In September 2021 the Dryfe Water, near Lockerbie, suffered “discolouration” from engineering work.

Whisky polluters ‘let off too lightly’

The environmental campaign group, WildFish, was concerned about the pollution of rivers. “Not only does this pollution pose potential risk to human health, it can also devastate river ecosystems and fish, such as wild Atlantic salmon,” said Scotland director, Rachel Mulrenan.

“Sepa must take urgent action to prevent all types of pollution in our freshwater and marine environments. Sepa must start to show it has teeth through increased deterrents, such as meaningful fines, and enforcement.”

Dr Richard Dixon, a veteran environmental campaigner who was a member of Sepa’s board for eight years, argued that tougher action was needed. “You can’t help feeling that these polluters are escaping proper prosecution and instead gaining good public relations,” he said.

“It can be hard to get a case to court and sometimes the fines are derisory. But no one is in doubt that a company has done wrong if they have been successfully prosecuted.”

He added: “The legal system needs to get much better at dealing with environmental cases and imposing meaningful fines so that we do not need this kind of ambiguous compromise, which lets polluters off too lightly.”

Buglife, which campaigns to protect invertebrates, warned that they were “under threat” from a “constant barrage” of pollutants. “Clean water is essential for the whisky industry so it’s vitally important that their operations don’t contribute to water quality issues,” said the group’s conservation director, Craig Macadam.

“We must make sure that producing whisky – the ‘water of life’ – allows freshwater life to continue to flourish without the threat of water pollution.”

Whisky companies aim to be ‘responsible’

Chivas Brothers, which is part of the French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, confirmed that it “completed all corrective action, as well as funding the community projects and satisfying the legal costs for Sepa.”

Chivas told Sepa that it was committed to being “responsible and compliant”.

It said: “Considerable investment has been made over the last few years to upgrade and extend the range of site operations covered by containment and bunding systems at distillery locations in order to reduce the risks from loss of containment.”

William Grant, a Scottish family firm, has not responded to requests for comment. Its website highlighted its aims to “be responsible” and to “be sustainable”.

“We wish to make a positive contribution to our communities and to our environment,” the company said. It is committed to the whisky industry’s targets to meet United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

The Ferret revealed in October 2022 that Grant’s whisky distillery in Girvan was one of Scotland’s top 20 climate polluters in 2020 and 2021. The company stressed that it was increasing its efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, but accepted there was still “more to do”.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency disclosed that inspectors would visit the Glenfiddich distillery to confirm that Grant has complied with its undertaking. Chivas had complied with its undertaking at Glen Keith “in full”, it said.

Sepa pointed out that enforcement undertakings were “voluntary offers by the responsible party to make amends for non-compliances”. They were not considered in cases that may result in prosecution, it said.

“Offers need to include suitable beneficial action that will prevent recurrence or demonstrate preventative longer-term benefits for the environment and local communities,” a Sepa spokesperson told The Ferret.

“The use of enforcement undertakings has led to funding for local projects and groups, which support and promote environmental improvements. They instil a more positive working relationship and increase understanding about the duty we all share in safeguarding our environment.”

Undertakings were just one of a range of enforcement actions Sepa could take. “We are clear that compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws is non-negotiable,” the spokesperson added.

“Sepa’s enforcement action is designed to secure compliance using the most appropriate and effective method and considers a range of factors, including the circumstances and impacts of any breach.”

Cover image of Glenfiddich distillery thanks to iStock/Brian Smith. This story was published in tandem with The Herald.

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