Today (4 December) Panorama ran a programme titled ‘The Water Pollution Cover Up’.
The programme discussed the Environment Agency’s regulation of the water industry with a specific focus on one company – United Utilities. The programme raises questions about how the water industry is regulated and there are some aspects of the programme which require further explanation.
In response, an Environment Agency spokesperson said:
We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously and will always pursue and prosecute companies that are deliberately obstructive or misleading.
We assess and record every incident report we receive – between 70,000 and 100,000 a year. We respond to every incident and attend those where there is a significant risk – including every category 1 or 2 incident in the North West since 2016. In the last six years we have pursued four successful criminal prosecutions against United Utilities and required the company to pay millions to environmental charities to put right the cause and effects of their offending.
We are strengthening our regulation by expanding our specialised workforce, increasing compliance checks and using new data and intelligence tools to inform our work. We will also soon have new powers to deliver civil penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce.
The programme included several examples where they have claimed the EA’s approach to regulation was not rigorous enough – what’s your response?
- The EA recognises that the performance of the water sector is not where it needs to be and that robust regulation is a key element of the required improvement. That’s why in June 2023, we outlined that we would be transforming the way we regulate the sector, embedding a new approach that targets our resource and interventions to uncover non-compliance and drive better performance from the water industry. This includes looking at how incidents are investigated and how they are categorised.
- These plans include:
- Expanding their specialised workforce to focus solely on water company regulation. More than 100 officers have already been trained in carrying out more detailed audits of water companies to quickly identify the root causes and put in place improvement actions to drive better performance more quickly.
- Significantly increasing compliance checks for every company – making sure they are sticking to the permits agreed with the Environment Agency.
- Recruiting more data specialists to make better use of analytics and technology.
- Transforming huge quantities of monitoring data into stronger regulatory intelligence. That includes using data-driven analytics to map monitoring data against rainfall to detect potential dry weather operation of storm overflows.
Is the EA carrying out its duty to protect the environment?
- The EA takes its responsibility to protect the environment very seriously and will always pursue and prosecute companies that are deliberately obstructive or misleading.
- The EA assesses and records between 70,000 and 100,000 incidents a year. The EA responds to every incident and attends those where there is significant risk, including every category 1 or 2 incident in the North West since 2016.
- We respond to every incident and attend those where there is significant risk, and we are increasingly able to use off-site data checks and technology from a range of different monitoring sources to assess them. This includes event duration monitors, effluent flow monitors, and effluent quality monitors.
- The EA also focuses regulatory activities on preventing pollution incidents from happening in the first place – with intelligence from incident reports helping inform and prioritise this work to the protect the environment.
- The EA has taken tough action against those companies which are breaking the rules. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies securing fines of over £150 million.
- The EA is also conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works.
The programme claims that water companies are “regulating themselves” – what’s your response?
- Water companies, including United Utilities, have always been required to report pollution incidents and breaches of their permits to the EA. They also monitor and inspect water company sites independently. This is in line with the approach for several other industries, such as waste and chemical sectors, and under the polluter pays principle they should pay for this monitoring.
- Any reports of misreporting are of concern and if there is evidence the EA will always take action. The EA will always pursue and prosecute companies that are deliberately obstructive.
- The EA has significantly driven up monitoring and transparency from water companies in recent years, so that everyone can see what is going on. This includes:
- Event Duration Monitoring: This measures how often and for how long storm overflows are used. Through the EA’s requirement of water companies, the number of storm overflows monitored across the network has increased from 10% in 2015 to 91% now monitored, and we will reach 100% cover by the end of the year. All the data is published online.
- Flow-to-full treatment: EA has also asked companies to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works to identify what is happening at those works during the sewage treatment process itself. This has led to a major criminal investigation, announced in November 2021, with all water companies that discharge into English waters now under investigation. EA specialists have been working through hundreds of documents received from water companies and we have so far analysed over 2 billion data points as part of our investigation.
The programme claims EA has “downgraded incidents” – what’s your response?
- We do not accept claims that the EA has “downgraded incidents”. This is because the initial estimate categorisation is based on the information provided when an incident is initially reported. Much like systems used by an emergency services call handler, this is then given a final categorisation once the case has been looked at by a more specialist member of staff.
- As the regulator, it’s the EA’s duty to categorise and record incidents. Companies do not set the incident category or have the remit to downgrade any incident category
- It is not unusual for an initial estimation of an incident categorisation and the final incident categorisation to be different. The initial potential categorisation is often based on a worst-case scenario, and so it is common for the final categorisation to be established as having a lower impact.
- Further investigation by the Environment Agency may also find the final categorisation to be having a greater impact that the initial information may have indicated; likewise, could be referred to as ‘upgrading’.
- An Environment Officer leads on the case and gathers evidence about the incident to take a more informed and more accurate view of the case. Companies are required and expected to self-report incidents to the EA and provide additional information to help with their investigations.
- There are a number of reasons why incident categorisations may differ from the initial estimate incident categorisation, including: the officer receiving further evidence about the case; the officer attending and inspecting the incident; data being gathered from instruments which measure water quality.
Defra has also provided a statement in response to the programme.
A Defra spokesperson said:
The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is utterly unacceptable and that’s why our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle pollution and clean up our water.
This government is the first to take such comprehensive action on storm overflows with monitoring up from just 7% in 2010 to 91% in 2022 and 100% expected by the end of the year. This means regulators will have additional tools to hold polluters to account like never before, including through new uncapped civil penalties covering a wider range of offences.
Our stringent targets for water companies to reduce sewage spills is driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £60 billion over 25 years – resulting in the cleaner waterways we all want to see.