CIEH welcomes new civil penalties, but calls on UK Government to go even further in tackling sewage pollution

05 October 2022, Ciaran Donaghy

CIEH welcomes the decision from the UK government to increase the civil penalty for water companies who pollute the environment but call on the UK government to go even further in tackling this issue.

The new Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ranil Jayawardena MP, has tabled proposals which would see the civil penalty for water companies who pollute the environment increased from £250,000 to £250 million. It is hoped that such measures would encourage water companies to invest in infrastructure that will minimise pollution incidents.

While CIEH welcome the decision by the Secretary of State to increase the civil penalties, we believe the UK Government must go even further to ensure the integrity of our natural environment is not placed at risk by pollution from water companies.

Under current regulations, water companies are allowed to dump untreated sewage into our rivers and waterways should they meet storm overflow limits during particularly rainy weather. However, analysis found that water companies in England and Wales were dumping sewage illegally beyond the scope of these regulations. Public outcry on the levels to which water companies were discharging raw untreated sewage into our waterways led to the government introducing the requirement within the Environment Act for water companies to report their sewage discharge all year round.

These moves from the government to increase civil penalties and to introduce mandatory reporting on sewage discharge all-year round are to be welcomed. However, unless there is both significant investment in infrastructure in England and Wales, and a strengthening of storm overflow regulations, there remains the significant risk of water companies discharging untreated sewage in our rivers, placing public health at risk, and damaging our environment. 

Dr Stephen Battersby, Vice-President at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said:

“While the CIEH welcome steps from the Environment Secretary to increase fines on water companies discharging sewage in our rivers and waterways, this simply does not go far enough given the contents of sewage and the risk to environmental and public health.

The current sewage infrastructure is not fit for purpose, nor are the regulations governing sewage discharge while the Environment Agency's ability to enforce the law has been severely restricted. Without significant overhaul of the current regime, there remains the significant risk water companies will continue to discharge untreated sewage, placing public health at risk and threatening our natural environment.

We would encourage the new Environment Secretary to both tighten sewage overflow regulations and increase the EA's enforcement resources. This would limit further the scope within which water companies can discharge sewage. At the same time there must be measures to increase investment in modernising the sewage infrastructure. The climate emergency makes this essential. We need to improve the 100,000km of combined sewers in England that lead to these problems.”

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