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Sewage pressure builds for water companies

EA calls for greater penalties for corporate environmental crime as major investigation into sewage treatment works is launched.
08 December 2021 , Steve Smethurst

A sewage treatment investigation by the Environmental Agency (EA) and Ofwat coincides with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) data revealing 87.6% rise in discharge notifications issued by water companies in 2021.

The Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat have launched a joint investigation into sewage treatment works after recent checks led to water companies admitting that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses.

More than 12,000 of England’s 15,000 storm overflows now have ‘event-duration’ monitors and the remaining 3,000 will have them fitted by end of 2023 with all data available online. The EA and Ofwat are also requiring water companies to install flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works to identify what is happening during the sewage-treatment process.

Any breaches will lead to enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can be up to 10% of annual turnover for civil cases, or unlimited in criminal proceedings.

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the EA, noted: “Only now, just before new monitors are installed, have companies reported concerns over potential problems.” She also called for the levels of penalties for corporate environmental crime in England to “go up significantly”.

Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow called this new information “shocking and wholly unacceptable”. She added: “We have been repeatedly clear in Parliament that we need to tighten up existing rules but also raise standards across the board when it comes to protecting our rivers. I want to see water companies spending far more on better infrastructure, and far less on payouts to shareholders.”

3,328 discharge notifications were issued during the bathing season, and one-in-three reports of sickness after bathing correlated with a pollution event in the area.

The announcement of the EA/Ofwat investigation coincided with the release of the Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) 2021 Water Quality Report, which revealed further evidence of pollution’s impact on the UK’s seas and rivers. The report noted that 5,517 sewage-discharge notifications were issued by water companies over a 12-month period, an increase of 87.6% on the previous year. Some 3,328 of these were issued during the bathing season, and one-in-three reports of sickness after bathing correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.

The SAS report noted that Southern Water was the worst offender with almost 30% of the 286 health reports submitted to the organisation coming from within its operating area. Hugo Tagholm, SAS Chief Executive, said: “The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected. The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action.”

Southern Water acknowledged it “had to improve” and announced that it plans to invest in cutting pollution dramatically. Dr Toby Willison, Director of Environment and Corporate Affairs at Southern Water (and a former Executive Director of Operations at the EA) said: “We share the passion and commitment of SAS to protect our precious coastal water. We know our performance has to improve and we are driving a step change in investment, spending £2 billion to cut pollution incidents by 80% by 2025.”

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