They’re all at it: England’s water companies admit pumping illegal levels of sewage into rivers

© Jay Williams Sewage can be seen pouring into the River Wye at Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, in September - Jay Williams

All of England’s combined water and sewage companies have admitted pumping likely illegal levels of waste into rivers, the Environment Agency (EA) has revealed. 

All of England’s combined water and sewage companies have admitted pumping likely illegal levels of waste into rivers, the Environment Agency (EA) has revealed. 

The EA will investigate all of the companies to assess the scale of the problem and can impose unlimited fines, it announced on Thursday.

Ofwat will also ask the same water companies to justify their executive bonuses and dividends, and provide evidence that they have taken into account their environmental performance and compliance with their obligations.

Rebecca Pow, an environment minister, said water companies should be spending more on “better infrastructure and far less on payouts to shareholders”.

The EA can impose unlimited fines if it brings criminal proceedings, while Ofwat can fine companies up to 10 per cent of their turnover.

Earlier this year, Southern Water was told to pay a record £90 million fine after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage into rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

‘We need to tighten up existing rules’

The investigation came after the EA asked water companies to install monitors on their sewage facilities to check they were staying within the legal limits for how much they were discharging.

Sewage should only be discharged in exceptional circumstances, such as intense rain or floods.

Before they had added the monitoring devices, water companies admitted to the EA that they were likely to be in breach of current regulations, by allowing regular sewage discharges.

“This new information is shocking and wholly unacceptable,” said Ms Pow. “We have been repeatedly clear in Parliament in recent weeks that we need to tighten up existing rules but also raise standards across the board when it comes to protecting our rivers.”

She added: “I want to see water companies spending far more on better infrastructure, and far less on payouts to shareholders.”

Frankly long overdue’

Water companies have come under intense scrutiny over repeated discharges of sewage into England’s rivers and coastal waters.

The Government was also heavily criticised for blocking an amendment to the new Environment Bill, which would have put a legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to stop sewage overflows.

After an apparent U-turn in the wake of the vote, ministers added a duty on water companies to “secure a progressive reduction”, though many campaigners argued that it was a watering down of the earlier proposal.

Philip Dunne MP, the chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee who led the Tory backbench rebellion over the dropping of the Wellington Amendment, said the investigation was “frankly long overdue”.

“Our waterways are the arteries of nature, far too many of which are being damaged by unacceptable sewage spills,” he said.

“It is clear that with decades of under-investment in our sewerage network there are no quick fixes, but it is welcome that the Government, through the Environment Act passed into law last week, is already taking action to get a grip on this unacceptable activity.”

Major issue of public trust’

Emma Howard Boyd, chairman of the Environment Agency, said: “Any water companies in breach of their permits are acting illegally. This is a major issue of public trust.”

A spokesman for Water UK, the industry body, said: “The water industry is committed to the best possible environmental outcomes.

“Water companies have been investing heavily to modernise the monitoring of sewage treatment works, and in using better modelling and artificial intelligence techniques to understand and predict any issues that might occur.

“Where the data identifies any problems, then action must be taken to address them.”

Source:  The Telegraph 18th November 2021