There was extensive media coverage this weekend of a record £90 million fine handed to Southern Water on Friday (9 July) following an Environment Agency investigation.
The Times, Guardian, Daily Mail, Financial Times, Mirror, Telegraph and I paper covered the sentencing by the Honourable Mr Justice Johnson, who ordered the company to pay the record fine after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage into rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 – 2015. The case is the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history.
Southern Water is required by permit to properly treat wastewater so as to protect the environment. Instead, the court heard the company admit to causing thousands of illegal discharges lasting a total of 61,704 hours. The court was also told Southern Water deliberately presented a misleading picture of compliance to the Environment Agency, hindering proper regulation of the company.
The fine will be paid out of company operating profits – protecting customers from having to pick up the tab for illegal pollution.
Chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd said:
With nature in crisis, no one should profit from undermining environmental laws. This sentence shows fines for environmental offences are starting to reach the same level as the highest fines for crimes in financial services and that is good. There is growing scrutiny of the environmental performance of companies all over the world, this sends an important message to global investors that England expects businesses to perform to the highest standards.
Like all water companies, Southern Water has a responsibility to operate in accordance with permit conditions and protect against serious pollution. In its deliberate, widespread and repeated offending, it has failed the environment, customers and the system of environmental laws the public puts its trust in. Polluters must pay, the Environment Agency will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that they do.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:
The findings in this case were shocking and wholly unacceptable. Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished by the full force of the law.
This fine, the largest ever imposed on a water company, is absolutely appropriate and welcomed. It will rightly be paid solely from the company’s operating profits, rather than customer bills.
I have spoken directly to the industry about taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, protecting rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them. Some companies are making welcome strides, but we still need to see significant improvements from others.
The Environment Agency has worked closely with Ofwat, the economic regulator, which imposed a £126 million penalty on SWS in 2019 as a result of the company’s regulatory failings over the same period. The sentencing was part of the criminal investigation into permit breaches and environmental harm.