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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Environment Agency response to Panorama investigation

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: water

Environment Agency officer in a high-vis jacket.

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.

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  1. Comment by JILL SUTCLIFFE posted on


  2. Comment by Jim Parrott posted on

    These responses have absolutely no value except as self justification for both bodies. It is what Greta Thunberg has described as 'blah blah'.

  3. Comment by Steve Parker posted on

    There is quite clearly something fundamentally wrong with the way the Environment Agency goes about things. If it's present management can't see that, as is evidenced by the response above, there should be a wholesale change of personnel at the highest levels.

  4. Comment by Christina Aitken posted on

    I agree with Miles too, I worked for the NHS for nearly 20 years and bullied twice and medially retired and opened up my own cattery under Defra rules and regulations, although I follow their rules to the latter and after inspection and speaking with management how do those who do not follow their rules pass to higher grades, they say they are so busy they do not have time to follow up, so basically no point in following their rules and this how those who do not follow their rules in any area of Defra get away with. MANAGEMENT TOTALLY USELESS IN DEFRA AND NHS.

  5. Comment by Myles Hickey posted on

    This is the worst example of management "fact massage" tripe I have read in a while. It addresses none of the 3 major sewage outflow incidents, initially categorised by the company as cat. 2, which were not investigated by EA at all and which led to a re-categorisation to cat. 4. It addresses none of the points raised by whistleblowers within UU (diverting or ceasing effluent outflow) or EA (failure to investigate incidents at all) and instead descends into formulaic PR drivel eg "The EA responds to every incident and attends those where there is a significant risk". Well you plainly don't! And your failure to condescend to respond to specific allegations of UU downgrading incidents is thoroughly unsatisfactory. Now it may well be that cuts imposed on EA have led to economies adverts to the discharge of your duties. If so, you should say so openly.

  6. Comment by Stephen Taylor posted on

    If what you say is true, it sounds like you have a case against the BBC Panorama programme. Will you be doing so?

  7. Comment by Leslie G posted on

    We should give the water companies and the environment agency the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are not accepting bribes to cover up or downgrade pollution incidents. However, there is a modern tendency to “measure performance” and award bonuses for improvement. I imagine that utilities managers are awarded for improved performance in terms of reduced pollution. Effectively they are then being incentivised to cover up and downgrade incidents. If that is actually happening, in terms of their measured performance, then that would be a remarkably stupid way of managing the managers. The program certainly gave the impression that it was the utility company that was downgrading the incident reports, albeit with permission from an absent EA person.

    The key question to ask is then, "How are EA staff incentivised in terms of bonus payments?" Do EA staff get bonuses based on a reducing quantity of serious incidents? Or are they overloaded, with bonuses based on the fraction of serious incidents they attend, and therefore meet the target by declaring incidents as less serious?

    Imagine your car being MOT’ed by a technician who was incentivised to find faults. Your chance of getting your car MOT’ed would be greatly reduced as there is human judgement involved, and money changes perceptions.

  8. Comment by J,Philpott posted on

    I watched the panorama programme and all I can is that the Environment Agency are inept and are in the back pocket of the water companies. It’s about time the government got their act together and reprimanded these companies and not let give all their profits to their share holders! I

  9. Comment by Michael Lancaster posted on

    I saw the program and it was quite a damning indictment of the EA by people in their employ who said the EA did not do enough and was willing to go along with what the water companies told them. I think the EA needs to good shake up from the top where there is obviously a leak of leadership. Fining these companies is not enough. We need to take back control and have it run by the government who will hopefully be answerable to the people and not shareholders.

  10. Comment by Richard Heath posted on

    £60billion over 25 years - ah I see, so you’ll fix the damage in a way that doesn’t impact the balance sheets of the companies that are responsible.

    Corruption at scale with regulatory approval, over a 25 year period. What an absolute disgrace!

  11. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Defra denial of the truth for many years and should be sued as unfit for purpose causing health problems to the general public. Lucky for Defra dead fish can´t talk. Anyone for resignation? No chance and the water companies have benefitted with huge profits and will continue to do so.
    DEFRA is a joke!

  12. Comment by James Wilson posted on

    For years and years, through multiple AMP rounds, the shellfish cultivation sector in England and Wales ( the responsibility of WG and NRW) has been told by Government that Water companies are on track to make the improvement to discharges of raw sewage. As filter feeders, bivalve shellfish like Oysters and mussels have the capacity to accumulate bacteria, much of which comes from this untreated sewage. The ability of our sector to grow and produce shellfish has been hampered for decades by the systematic failure of water co's to do just this. Shellfish growers have gone out of business as a direct consequence of this failure to improve, a situation that has been exacerbated since the UK left the EU single market, given the implication on the application of the common regulatory framework. Why is it that the consequences of this failure are borne by others - be they businesses like ours, or the wider environment & society whilst the Government of the day (this is an issue that cover the current and previous administrations including Labour) allows the polluters to never pay

  13. Comment by mike highley posted on

    You state you intend to employ more data analysts and technology to gather the data. This is commendable,however your existing data sets on EDM, whilst nearing completion in terms of coverage, indicate there is a lack of understanding within the EA of quality assurance.
    Your EDM data cannot be used to perform a robust risk assessment as they only indicate "likelihood of occurrence" and not "severity of effect". Your SOAF seems to be driven to categorise the risk associated with a specific storm overflow, rather than each overflow event.
    The EDM data can be used to indicate risk category by event, and the combination of the two used to assign a risk category to the overall operation.
    This in turn can be used to drive improvement programmes based on the known root causes and others yet to be discovered. Utilities with the highest risk category based on historical performance should then be subjected to the closest regulatory control, both for their current performance, and in making progress versus their improvement plan. Permits should be reviewed to set improvement targets based on historical performance and risk category.
    So please, as well as employing more data analysts, try employing some experienced quality assurance professionals who can guide your data analysts to create the picture on which continuous improvement plans and balanced scorecards for driving those improvements can be established.

  14. Comment by Peter G Robson posted on

    As expected a managed reply.

    The bottom line is that rivers and the sea are being blatantly polluted and the regulators, Defra and the EA are not doing enough to stop the water companies bending the rules.

    You need to be shouting from the rooftop that you need more enforcement officers, much tighter regulations and full unmitigated support from the politicians from all parties.

  15. Comment by Simon Fildes posted on

    The response is full of obfuscation and avoidance.

    Monitoring is a waste of time if it is done poorly and open to manipulation by those being monitored.

    The number of incidents attended by the EA suggests it is not interested in addressing the issues.

    If the volume of sewage entering our waters is unacceptable, what have the EA been doing over the past 10 years to let it get to this stage?? They are in control so they are responsible.

    I suggest it is time the agency was replaced with one that is effective in reducing issues, not just covering up and defending both itself and the water companies.

  16. Comment by Renee Knight posted on

    So utterly frightening and sad. Frightening, that some humans are so greedy they are willing to sacrifice the health of the earth they live on - a knock on effect for all animals and their own kind, their very own children, grandchildren for money and false good reputation. This is their legacy left behind when they die. How can they be ok with this? It’s beyond sad. What’s worse is the EA who should protect the environment as their job entails, is quite willing to be corrupted, again for momentary money perhaps? Again, not caring about the legacy of their greed and the very essence of what they should be protecting, not only as their job but for the earth and all that lives and will live on it now and going forward. If there is any decency left in the world then they surely mustn’t get away with it!

  17. Comment by Brian Elliott posted on

    We the customer have already given the water companies our hard earned money to pay for sewage treatment which has effectively been stolen to feed cats FAT
    cats.Now we are being asked/forced to pay them AGAIN for work we have already paid for .

  18. Comment by JILL SUTCLIFFE posted on

    The evidence produced in the Panorama programme was convincing and our experience locally mirrors that with regard to water pollution incidents and with respect to the the oil and gas industry self monitoring itself given that the EA has been stripped of staff.

  19. Comment by Julie Houldershaw posted on

    It is interesting that the EA mentions storm overflow monitoring, what about the emergency overflows, that in some cases the discharge points are unknown, some are even estimated. Some even from the grid references have been built over. Plus there appears to be old emergency overflow pipes in the sewage systems. These appear to come into play, when the waste in the sewage gets to three quarters full. These are systems which were installed to protect our homes. However lack of knowledge of their locations and how these work seems to have led to serious maintenance issues. How much are these old systems contributing to flooding in the UK. People will be suffering and have no idea, how these old systems are affecting their homes and land.