Jail terms and huge fines should face the worst polluters among water companies, but more could be done to address environmental vandalism in all sectors
The Environment Agency (EA) is calling for higher fines, prison sentences for CEOs and board members, and company directors to be struck off for serious pollution incidents. This followed the agency’s annual environmental report showing the poorest performances yet from England’s nine water and sewage companies.
Since 2015, EA prosecutions against water companies have resulted in fines totalling more than £138m, and the agency is currently investigating the sector.
The EA, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has said it is increasing sewage treatment works inspections, and that the Environment Act required water companies to monitor storm overflows and make the data public.
EA Chair, Emma Howard Boyd said the agency had a “plan to make it too painful” for companies to continue polluting and that “investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet”.
The new Office for Environmental Protection is investigating the EA, Defra, and the water regulator Ofwat, for potentially failing to regulate sewage releases.
Gary McFarlane, CIEH Director Northern Ireland, who has a special interest in the environment, said: “CIEH would totally support the underpinning rationale that we believe the Environment Agency are highlighting in this call for jail sentences for those that flout environmental regulation.
“If we truly want to put an end to these kinds of incidents, anyone who either wilfully or knowingly damages the environment by flouting environmental regulations should face penalties that match the severity of the crime.”
“The penalties for those that flout environmental laws have never been adequate in my view. There are countless examples of organisations and individuals choosing to break the law and, if in fact they are caught, face the consequences. And that is because, frankly, compliance is often viewed as either too difficult, too costly, or both. Yet the protection of our environment has never been more important."
McFarlane added: “It’s not just water companies that are at fault here. If we truly want to put an end to these kinds of incidents, anyone who either wilfully or knowingly damages the environment by flouting environmental regulations should face penalties that match the severity of the crime.”
Southern Water and South West Water were awarded the lowest rating, one star out of four in the EA annual environmental report.
A South West Water spokesperson said: “The investments and changes we are already making across our network are delivering real results, including a one-third reduction in pollution incidents last year to the lowest number in 10 years.
“We are committed to bringing this down further year on year by strengthening our round-the-clock response, increasing resourcing levels by 25%, and investing £330 million over the next three years in our wastewater network. However, we know there is significant progress still to make and remain committed to becoming a four-star EPA-rated company by the end of 2024.”
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