In a week when yet another water company is heavily fined for polluting the nation’s waterways, The Environment Agency has slammed the entire sector for ‘unacceptable’ standards through 2018. It represents yet more proof, as if we needed it, that the country’s water utilities firms are a very long way from perfect, and have a very long way to go to properly protect our precious natural waterways from runaway water pollution. And Southern Water, one of the worst sinners of all, has been accused by Surfers Against Sewage of polluting some of Britain’s best-loved beaches with ‘raw sewage and stormwater’ more than 150 times in just 6 weeks. Add it together and what do you get? A scandal of epic proportions.
Thames Water fined for polluting Berkshire’s Maidenhead Ditch
Thames Water has been ordered to pay more than £700,000 in environment fines and costs for polluting the Maidenhead Ditch in Berkshire, an incident that killed fish and left many others ‘in distress’.
The case was brought to court by The Environment Agency after raw sewage escaped from the Thames Water site at Maidenhead Sewage Treatment into the Maidenhead Ditch, which in turn flows into the River Cut, a Thames tributary where Bray Marina, South East Water’s public water supply waterworks, is located along with facilities for paddle boarders and other recreational users.
On 10th July Thames Water was ordered to pay £607,000 in environment penalties plus costs of £100,000 and a victim surcharge of £120. Aylesbury Crown Court heard about the fact that Maidenhead Sewage Treatment Works has a permit to discharge sewage into the water course when it’s stormy, a permit that is supposed to handle the high flows seen in very wet weather. But there were no such conditions during 2014, so no excuse for the escape.
The Works also has a permit to discharge fully-treated ‘final’ effluent including human waste, pollutants, organic materials and chemicals into the watercourse, but Thames Water failed to meet the conditions of both permits at the time. Sewage and partially treated sewage ended up in the watercourse thanks to poor-performing equipment, and a member of the public alerted the Environment Agency’s hotline after spotting a horrid, grey, stinking body of polluted water flowing into the Maidenhead Ditch and River Cut.
England’s water companies’ performance is “simply unacceptable”
An overall rating of ‘unacceptable’ was delivered by the Environment Agency following 2018’s horrendous year of incident after incident. Southern Water and Yorkshire Water have both been singled out and criticised for causing high levels of serious pollution and all the nation’s water companies have been told to clean up their act following a verdict of “simply unacceptable”. Of a total of nine privatised water and sewerage companies just one, Northumbrian Water, performed to the expected levels last year.
As Emma Howard Boyd, the EA’s chairperson, said,“rather than improving, the performance of most companies has deteriorated, reversing the trend of gradual improvement since we introduced the environmental performance assessment in 2011.S serious pollution incidents which damage the local environment, threaten wildlife and in the worst cases put the public at risk have increased.” Worse still, she also claimed that noting she’d seen so far in 2019 suggested dramatic improvements were being made.
As a result of this damning evidence, The Environment Agency is going to toughen up its act even further in future, making inspections more thorough and increasing water firm auditing. And there’s more. The regulator Ofwat has already announced new measures to restrict shareholder payouts if water companies aren’t well enough funded to do their jobs properly. It makes sense when, in a reasonable world, our environment should come first and shareholders second, not the other way around.
Severn Trent, Southern Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water all allowed more serious pollution incidents to happen than we saw in 2017. Southern Water is no stranger to criticisms of its performance, and is even at the heart of a criminal investigation by the EA over failures at a sewage treatment plant in southern England. They were fined £126m in June 2019 for ‘shocking’ failures.
Surfers Against Sewage slams Southern Water for 150+ pollution incidents
Southern Water’s at it again… and this time the environmental pressure group Surfers Against Sewage are the ones to shop one of England’s water companies for disgraceful behaviour. SAS has just released data revealing how Southern polluted some of Britain’s most-visited beaches with raw sewage and storm water, and it happened more than 150 times in six weeks. The utilities firm has been slammed with a red rating for pollution.
Will water companies ever reach their targets?
Experts claim water companies are unlikely to meet targets to cut serious pollution incidents to zero by 2020. Take Dr Toby Willison, the executive director of operations at the EA, who says that while water companies need to clean up their act, and people expect them to improve the environment, not pollute rivers, the EA will “continue to challenge CEOs to improve company performance” and ”take strong and appropriate enforcement action.”
In the meantime Yorkshire Water claims the incidents it was responsible for don’t reflect their ambition to protect the environment. And Southern Water claims that the changes they’ve made in recent years have led to a ‘far higher level of self-reporting as new systems and processes kick in’. They also say staff are getting more ‘awareness training’ and the company is finding and fixing issues faster than before.
There’s only one thing left to say, and that’s “Seeing is believing.”
David Cole MSEE
David is a pioneer of the spill containment and water pollution prevention industry with 30 years experience. He was instrumental in the development of CIRIA736 with The Environment Agency and is passionate about preventing water pollution.