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Reckless pollution sees Thames Water fined £3.33m

Beleaguered Thames Water "missed opportunities" to prevent pollution of rivers in Sussex in 2017
20 July 2023 , Kerry Taylor-Smith

Marine Conservation Society welcomes fine but calls for tougher regulation from the UK government, “for sake of people and planet”

Thames Water deliberately misled an Environment Agency (EA) investigation and has been fined £3.33 million after an equipment failure in 2017 caused millions of litres of raw sewage to flood two rivers, killing several thousand fish.

A pump at the company’s Crawley sewage treatment works was erroneously activated, leading to a storm lagoon filling with untreated sewage. Over several hours the following day, this discharged into Gatwick Stream and the River Mole; this should only occur in wet weather, and there had been no significant rainfall. Additionally, the lagoon was three-quarters the legally required size, so filled and discharged into the rivers more quickly.

An EA investigation found almost 1,400 dead fish, but Lewes Crown Court heard many more were likely killed but hidden in vegetation and deep pools or had been eaten by birds and other animals.

Thames Water said its infrastructure was not responsible for the pollution, but later pleaded guilty to four breaches of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 relating to the pollution and operation of the Crawley plant during October 2017.

“Thames Water missed several opportunities to prevent this pollution incident from occurring,” said Jamie Lloyd, Senior Environment Officer, EA who led the investigation. “Thames Water failed to have adequate systems in place to manage the pollution risk from their site and didn’t respond to alarms.”

Lloyd said Thames Water failed to take responsibility for this “entirely avoidable” incident until several years later and didn’t provide vital information during the investigation.

Cathryn Ross, interim co-CEO of Thames Water, said: “We are deeply sorry for the entirely unacceptable pollution incident into the Gatwick Stream and River Mole six years ago. It should not have happened, and we deeply regret the incident.”

Ross apologised for the company’s response and accepted they “made significant errors and exercised poor judgment at the time.”

“This example shows the damage that can be done to wildlife by discharges of untreated sewage... we must see tougher regulation by the UK government.”

“We are pleased to see a fine issued for the reckless behaviour of Thames Water,” said Dr Christine Tuckett, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Marine Conservation Society. “This was a blatant breach of environmental law. This example shows the damage that can be done to wildlife by discharges of untreated sewage... For the sake of people and planet, we must see tougher regulation by the UK government to stop incidents like this happening again.”

Thames Water has made voluntary payments totalling £1 million to three local organisations for projects including developing a local catchment plan and carrying out fish passage and habitat works. Also in the pipeline are upgrades to sewers and improvements to over 250 treatment works in London and Thames Valley, including the Crawley site.

However, this comes at a cost and could push the company, which has recently secured £750 million in funding from shareholders but remains £14 billion in debt, closer to special administration and temporary re-nationalisation.

Thames Water is one of several suppliers criticised for their records on sewage spills and plugging leaks. David Black, Chief Executive of Ofwat, warns the cost of improving services could lead to higher bills from 2025. However, any increase would be a matter for Ofwat, says Water UK, which represents suppliers.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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