Sewage discharge

Water companies must monitor and act on raw sewage discharge

EA data shows less than 10% of emergency overflows, which release raw sewage, are monitored
22 June 2023 , Steve Smethurst

MCS is taking legal action against government after the closure of multiple Cornish shellfish farms due to high levels of E coli

Clean-water campaigners have called for urgent monitoring of emergency sewage overflows. 

It follows a freedom of information request by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to the Environment Agency, that shows less than 10% of emergency overflows in the sewerage network are monitored for sewage discharges (686 out of 7,016 across England). 

Unlike storm overflows, which result in diluted excess sewage leaving the system, emergency overflows release raw sewage. They are only permitted to be used in extreme situations such as electrical power failure or mechanical breakdown of pumps. 

However, water companies are only required to monitor emergency overflows that discharge into shellfish waters. Of the 686 emergency overflows that recorded data over the past two years, 102 discharged into shellfish waters 635 times in 2021, while the following year, 86 discharged 491 times.

Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society said, “From the tiny amount of data we have, we can see that these discharges aren’t uncommon and there are repeat offences.  

“It's not clear why, after the first incident, measures aren't being taken to prevent another discharge. Water companies are paid to treat our sewage and they need to fulfil this duty. The failure to put procedures in place is putting marine life – and people – at risk.” 

The MCS is being supported by the Good Law Project in a High Court challenge that seeks to force the government to impose ‘much more robust and urgent’ targets upon water companies.

The legal action follows 11 shellfish farms in Cornwall being forced to close because they were found to contain extremely high levels of E coli.

The shellfish farms around the rivers Fal, Truro and Carnon had E coli levels up to 92,000/100g. Sale of shellfish is prohibited from areas where levels exceed 46,000/100g. The Cornwall Port Health Authority described the readings as ‘very high’.

James Wilson, a water quality project manager from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, said: “The industry has been saying to government for years that we need to clean up our waters. We’re constantly fobbed off and it constantly gets worse.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson commented: “We require water companies to monitor emergency overflows associated with designated shellfish waters as advised by government. In 2022, more than 70% were not used. We will continue to investigate and act against permit non-compliance.”

“These extraordinary figures suggest that the true scale of the sewage dumping crisis is more shocking and devastating than we knew.”

A spokesperson from Water UK said water companies are putting plans in place to track and reduce emergency overflow use. The spokesperson said: “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling about the health of our rivers and seas. We are taking action to put it right.”

However, the Good Law Project’s Legal Director, Emma Dearnaley was not impressed. She said: “These extraordinary figures suggest that the true scale of the sewage dumping crisis is more shocking and devastating than we knew.”

Henry Swithinbank, SAS Policy and Research Manager blamed ‘lax regulation’ and ‘slaps on the wrist’ for the situation. He said: “Without full transparency, polluters will find new ways to cover up their wrongdoings and continue to treat our waterways like open sewers. What else are they hiding?”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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