A Northumberland farmer has been ordered to pay almost £4,000 after assaulting an Environment Agency officer who was investigating a pollution incident.
John Aaron Laing, 54, of East Learmouth Farm in Cornhill-on-Tweed had pleaded not guilty to assault, threatening and abusive behaviour and obstructing an Environment Agency officer in the execution of his duty. He was found guilty of all offences at Berwick Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday 2 October.
He was fined £1,246 for assault and threatening behaviour, ordered to pay £250 compensation to the Environment Agency officer he assaulted, and £2,400 costs. He was also given a 12-month conditional discharge for obstruction.
Prosecuting, Chris Bunting told the court that on Saturday 6 January two Environment Agency officers attended a suspected pollution incident at Cornhill-on-Tweed.
After taking water samples they drove to New Heaton Farm, owned by Laing, to further investigate and asked a staff member to stop land spreading activities. The officers then started to take samples from a surface water ditch on the land. One of them went back to the car to collect some equipment and Laing returned to the site at this point.
He walked up to and into the Environment Agency officer and was described to be “very hostile and threatening, continuously bumping into his chest”. The officer explained they were investigating a pollution incident and Laing “demanded to know” who reported him to which the officer replied he “didn’t know”.
Laing then said he would “finish” the officer, find out where he lived, burn his house down and kill his family. He was said to keep walking into the officer as they walked towards the road, raising his hand as if he was going to punch him while asking the officer to hit him first.
The officer said he was calling the police, and then received a phone call from another Environment Agency officer who overheard Laing’s threatening behaviour. Laing then left the area and the officers left the farm.
During a police interview, Laing disputed there was a pollution problem and said he asked the officer to leave for “health and safety reasons”. Laing claimed the officer tried to provoke him and said the officer didn’t show any ID. He claimed to only mentioned the officer’s house to ask “how he would like it if he turned up uninvited and walked over his garden.” He later repeated this account during the trial but his version of events was rejected for being contradictory.
Paul Whitehill, enforcement team leader for the Environment Agency in the North East, said: “Our officers are doing an important job to protect the environment and investigate anything which impacts on the quality of our rivers and they shouldn’t have to put up with any kind of abusive or threatening behaviour during the course of their work.
“The officers were taking water quality samples after reports that a watercourse was impacted by slurry pollution and this is all part of enquiries to establish a potential source for the pollution so it can be stopped and prevented in future.”
He added: “The safety of our officers is paramount and we will always take action against people who assault them or are threatening and abusive. Hopefully this sends out a message to others that it will not be tolerated.”