Water companies are facing a major investigation after checks revealed some firms may be releasing unpermitted sewage into rivers and watercourses.
The probe, by the Environment Agency (EA) and water regulator Ofwat will involve more than 2,000 sewage treatment works, and any company caught breaching its permits could be handed fines or prosecuted.
The investigation was launched after the two bodies said several water companies admitted many of their sewage treatment works may not be compliant.
The names or amount of companies who may not have been compliant have not been revealed.
It comes after the EA and Ofwat have been encouraging companies to improve their day-to-day performance and meet progressively higher standards to protect the environment.
As part of this, the EA has been checking that water companies comply with requirements and has asked them to fit new monitors at sewage treatment works.
This is to make sure the right levels of wastewater are being treated before overflows are allowed to enter the environment.
The EA and Ofwat are now analysing all water and sewerage companies to assess the scale of the problem.
Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of the coalition of conservation groups Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the crackdown was welcome.
He added: “For too long poor monitoring of sewage overflow permits has been a ‘get out of jail free’ card for some water companies to pollute with impunity. Under-reporting, inaction, and failure to comply with statutory duties to reduce harm to our rivers and wildlife are unacceptable, and incompatible with stopping nature’s decline by 2030.
“We need Government to ensure our underfunded water watchdogs have a full armoury of financial and legal options available to ensure that corporate environmental crime does not go unpunished.”
Emma Howard Boyd, chairwoman of the Environment Agency, said: “Any water companies in breach of their permits are acting illegally. This is a major issue of public trust.
“Water company boards must certify every year that they have adequate resources to fulfil their regulated activities. Only now, just before new monitors are installed, have companies reported concerns over potential problems.”
She added she would like to see the levels of penalties for corporate environmental crime to increase and more attention should be given to directors of companies that are “guilty of repeated, deliberate or reckless breaches of environmental law”.
Jonson Cox, chairman of Ofwat, said: “Customers pay water companies to treat wastewater and protect and enhance rivers and wildlife. The public will be extremely disappointed if these reports are confirmed. Ofwat takes any reports of water companies breaking the law very seriously.”
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the news was “shocking and wholly unacceptable”.
She added: “I have made my expectations of water companies and their legal duties crystal clear. Water companies must take urgent and immediate steps to abide by their legal duties. I will also be remaining in close contact with the regulators about any fines, prosecutions or other enforcement action that is deemed necessary.”
Source: The Independent 18th November 2021