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Windrush Against Sewage Pollution report on illegal sewage spills

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River through green banks and trees

There has been coverage today in The Times and BBC News regarding a report by the campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution on illegal sewage spills.

The report suggests that several water companies - Southern Water, South West Water, Thames Water, Welsh Water, Wessex Water, Yorkshire Water and United Utilities - have illegally spilt sewage from treatment works into rivers thousands of times between 2017 and 2021.

It is the clear legal responsibility of water companies to report any spills – both permitted and unpermitted – to the Environment Agency. If there is evidence that this is not happening the EA will pursue the water companies concerned and take appropriate action. In November it launched a major investigation into possible unauthorised spills at more than 2,000 sewage treatment works. This is in addition to 1,300 storm overflows and storm tanks that have been identified as spilling frequently and prioritised for further scrutiny.

Water companies were handed record fines last year, making clear that polluters will be made to pay for damage to the environment. In 2021 the EA concluded seven prosecutions against water companies with fines of £90 million, 2 of £4 million, £2.3 million, £1.5 million, £150,000 and £540,000. More prosecutions are progressing in court.

The EA is also playing a central role in driving better monitoring and transparency, placing new requirements on water companies so that everyone can see what is happening.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said:

Where there is evidence of non-compliance we will not hesitate to pursue the water companies concerned, and take appropriate action – as is evidenced by the conclusion of seven prosecutions against water and sewerage companies in 2021.

Sewage pollution can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and our environment. Water companies, regulators, farmers and others must do more to tackle this.

To date, 1300 storm overflows and storm tanks at waste water treatment works have been identified as spilling frequently, and prioritised for further scrutiny following our review of data from over 12,000 sites. Our separate, major investigation into possible unauthorised spills at thousands of sewage treatment works is ongoing.

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  1. Comment by Malcolm Mackay posted on

    Fines will go nowhere. A pointless token gesture. For context Thames Water reported a £616M loss, mostly due to 'a non cash loss on financial instruments'. What have they been doing? Buying Bitcoin with our water 'tax' bills?!

    First, the sewer system needs some
    serious investment, so it less easily overwhelmed by rainwater.

    Second, stop water company cover ups by revoking sewerage licences. Start with Thames Water. That will get their attention. Whilst it is not in their power to magic the broken sewers away, we must have transparency in return for our water 'tax' bills.

  2. Comment by Michael Heaton posted on

    1. Legal action is slow and will become increasingly ineffective once consultants and barristers get to grip with the vague wording if the new Env Bill .

    2. Surface water needs to be separated from sewage and the sewerage system, preferably discharged into soak-aways or ‘balancing’ ponds. For existing drainage this is a water company and LPA/Highways shared responsibility, but some of it could be done through the Building Regs for building extensions, as is the case, for instance, for insulation.

    3. The sewerage system, much of which is nearly 100 years old, needs a comprehensive upgrade. Our Conservative MP reckons this would cost £600 billion: Ofgem reckons the gas network could be upgraded for £25 billion, HS2 is probably going to cost £100 billion +. Furlough has cost c. £300 billion. The govt. can find money when it wants to. I will vote for whichever Party promises to do this.

  3. Comment by Ray Walton posted on

    They seem to have missed off a few ,000's on the amounts. There were a minimum of 200,000+ (in 2019) and 400,000 (in 2020) according to EA data... are no forthcoming EA prosecutions. Do we assume then that the majority of these were authorised EA legal and permitted by the EA?
    There is no difference between legal and illegal, as they all cause the very same damage and fish kills/habitat destruction etc. in rivers etc.

    So can you please tell the public, anglers, all river users how many of these deliberate discharges were EA authorised, permitted and legalised? Thanks.

  4. Comment by John W. Baxter posted on

    Real time monitoring of effluent from waste water treatment works is available as the industry knows, but, like storm tank levels , real time monitoring is useless if the equipment is not maintained or monitored.
    Investment in the centrifuges, chp units and digester capacity to maximise payments from the government for converting biogas to available energy has taken priority over the needed increase in waste water treatment capacity for increased population growth and more extreme weather events in part brought about by environmental degradation. It’s time to make storm tanks ,ammonia reduction,metaldehyde reduction and clarity improvement more important to entrapped customers than increased loan repayments to lenders.