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Mystery as chemical spill kills tens of thousands of fish along stretch of pristine river in Wales

As Emily Tilling walks her dogs along the shady banks of the River Llynfi, her eye will often be caught by the splash of a leaping wild brown trout or the iridescent flash of a kingfisher.

But during an evening stroll last weekend, she witnessed an ecological catastrophe that has almost completely destroyed the wildlife at the river in mid-Wales.

Amid putrid foam and an overwhelming stench of chemicals, trout flailed around in the shallows gasping for air as desperate crayfish attempted to scrabble out of the water.

As Emily Tilling walks her dogs along the shady banks of the River Llynfi, her eye will often be caught by the splash of a leaping wild brown trout or the iridescent flash of a kingfisher

As Emily Tilling walks her dogs along the shady banks of the River Llynfi, her eye will often be caught by the splash of a leaping wild brown trout or the iridescent flash of a kingfisher

Mother-of-three Emily, 47, was witnessing a ‘complete kill’ – a pollution spill so toxic that it wiped out all the fish and almost all the insects and other invertebrates along three miles of once pristine river.

‘I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,’ she said. ‘It was like something from [TV drama] Chernobyl.

Mother-of-three Emily, 47, was witnessing a 'complete kill' – a pollution spill so toxic that it wiped out all the fish and almost all the insects and other invertebrates along three miles of once pristine river

Mother-of-three Emily, 47, was witnessing a ‘complete kill’ – a pollution spill so toxic that it wiped out all the fish and almost all the insects and other invertebrates along three miles of once pristine river

‘If a fish is trying to get out of the water, there must be something very bad in it.’ The Afon Llynfi, which flows around the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, boasts ‘internationally important’ populations of Atlantic salmon, bullhead fish and otters. 

Anglers also seek out its grayling and perch, while the waters hold the protected white-clawed crayfish.

Not far off is a beach popular with children and ‘wild swimmers’. Mark Roberts, secretary of the Gwent Angling Society, predicted the river will take a decade to recover. ‘I can’t explain how devastating it is,’ he said.

‘We are estimating – and we are being quite conservative – multiple tens of thousands of fish killed.’

Investigators from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) are now trying to identify the nature and source of the pollution. 

Residents say a Government-subsidised green energy firm based on a 600-acre farm nearby has previously been prosecuted for pollution.

GP Biotec mixes waste from abattoirs and food processing plants with ‘energy crops’ such as maize to produce a gas which is then used to produce electricity.

A by-product sludge called digestate is sold as a fertiliser but can be damaging to rivers. In 2018 the firm was fined £45,320 for polluting a three-mile stretch of the Llynfi as well as a private drinking supply.

Farmer Paul Jones, 43, who runs the site, said NRW inspectors have given it ‘a clean bill of health’.

‘I honestly don’t feel there’s anything… that points to the pollution coming from us,’ he said. 

He said reports of a chlorine smell at the scene ‘puts us in the clear’. 

‘We don’t carry any substances like that on the site,’ he added.

Investigators from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) are now trying to identify the nature and source of the pollution

Investigators from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) are now trying to identify the nature and source of the pollution

Other residents suspect a motocross track on part of the farm on the opposite side of the river.

It is understood that concerns were raised about GP Motopark in 2006 about the risk of pollution caused by motorbikes.

The owner did not respond to a request for comment.

A sewage plant operated by utility firm Welsh Water is located about a mile from the polluted area but is said to be operating as normal.

NRW last night said it has ‘not yet come to a conclusion as to the source or sources of the pollution’.

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