Southern Water’s record-breaking £126 million fine
In 2007 Southern Water was fined £20.3 million for raising its prices more than it should. Now it has been hit with a record £126m punishment for spilling wastewater into the environment from its sewage plants. But there’s more. The company also tried to cover up its mistakes by purposely misreporting data. In fact, the situation was so bad that Southern Water will be ordered to pay back every single customer at least £61.
Rachel Fletcher, the head of water regulator Ofwat, found the situation ‘shocking’, Southern Water has apologised and the Environment Agency has launched a criminal investigation, which will kick off shortly. The utilities firm will pay back a total of £123m to its customers, as well as hand over a hefty £3m fine.
So what went wrong? Southern Water failed to make a good enough investment in their infrastructure, which in turn meant equipment failures and spills of wastewater were common. They also manipulated the wastewater sampling process and misreported information about the performance of several sewage treatment sites, neatly avoiding Ofwat penalties.
Southern covers Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and runs more than 300 wastewater treatment sites. According to Ofwat, a ‘significant number’ had problems. At the same time their profits were high: £129M in 2010, £32m in 2011, a whopping £170m in 2014, £167m in 2015 and so on. And their bosses were paid absolute fortunes – in 2014 Matthew Wright earned a £1.9m salary, including his pension, while in the background things went more and more wrong.
In Ofwat’s words, “the company was being run with scant regard for its responsibilities to society and the environment. It was not just the poor operational performance, but the coordinated efforts to hide and deceive customers of the fact that are so troubling. The previous management failed to stamp out this behaviour and failed to manage its plants properly. In doing so, Southern Water let down its customers and operated in a way completely counter to the public service ethos we expect.”
Greenpeace study – How one UK river is more polluted than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
There are an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of ocean plastic debris floating around our planet. A recent report says it’ll triple by 2025. Right now about 40% of plastics are thrown away during the same year they were made. And our rivers are being affected along with our seas.
As reported in The Independent, British rivers are polluted with waste and almost every sample collected was full of microplastics. One particular river was so badly polluted it had a higher concentration of plastics than the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a remarkable 2 million microplastics per square kilometre.
When Greenpeace sampled 13 British rivers, they found every river tested contained microplastics. But the Mersey was the most contaminated of all. Researchers removed a shocking 875 pieces of plastic from the river in just 30 minutes, and now Greenpeace is calling for the government to bring in ‘bold’ new plastic reduction targets along with a proper independent watchdog that actually has the power to enforce the law.
The Exe, Thames, Severn, Great Ouse, Trent, Mersey, Aire, Derwent, Wear, Conwy, Wye, Clyde, and Lagan were all tested. During the study, the researchers spotted voles eating plastic, swans using it to build their nests, and caddisfly larvae using it to make their casings. No wonder, according to Greenpeace, it’s no good “Fiddling around the edges of the plastic pollution problem by banning straws.” We need more action, we need more effective action, and we need it now.
Northumbrian Water fined £1.1m for water pollution
Water pollution prevention means Northumbrian Water is having to pay more than a million pounds to ‘green’ projects in recompense for a slew of historical environmental pollution incidents involving pumping station regulations being broken. They accepted responsibility for pollution and will pay £1,179,500 to environmental groups and wildlife trusts working in the region, including the Durham Wildlife Trust, the Marine Conservation Society, the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust and the Tees and Wear rivers trusts. The Environment Agency hopes the fines will “help to change the behaviour of the company and focus on their activities.”
United Utilities fined £600,000 for a fish-killing industrial leak
An industrial leak can be a killer. Many brown trout died when an acidic ferric salt solution leaked from the Rivington Water Treatment Works in September 2016. The pollutant had been allowed to bypass a faulty valve in the water treatment works, and United Utilities, which admitted the offence, has already taken action to prevent the pollution.
They have paid £500,000 to the Douglas Catchment Partnership, which will be used to build fish passages and bypass streams in the River Douglas catchment area. They’ll provide more free support to the project in various ways. They spent £88,498 to stop the issue happening again, and they’ve handed £13,521 to the Environment Agency to cover costs. As an Environment Agency spokesperson confirmed, they will always take tough action against any company or individual who causes significant pollution and damage to the environment.
A spate of industrial fires and a couple of chemical spills.
We all know intuitively that there are likely to be more fires in the summer months. What with the dry weather, the BBQ’s and the sense of abandon that comes with the alcohol and the sunshine. What’s happening right now feels a little bit different though. We have found reports of nine major industrial fires since our last water pollution prevention news post just a fortnight ago. We have seen major fires at the Finedon Road Industrial Estate in Wellingborough; Nuffield Way in Abingdon; Dreadnought Trading Estate in Bridport, The Golden Triangle Industrial Estate in Widnes; Dalton in Cumbria; Eden Street in Coventry; PDH Industrial Estate in Watery Lane, Willenhall; The Red Scar Industrial Estate in Longridge, Lancashire; and at the time of writing Emergency Services were battling to control a blaze in Brierlow Bar, near Buxton in Derbyshire.
Regular readers of this blog will know that this isn’t a particularly high number as the Fire Brigade report that there are on average 300 industrial fires in the UK every year, almost one a day. The difference right now is that these fires are “major” enough to be reported, and the vast majority of industrial fires go unreported. The question we have, and the question that the Environment Agency will be asking is: what happened to the firewater runoff?
We sincerely hope the businesses that have been affected by these disasters had an environment plans with contingency for firewater runoff or they may be in for another nasty surprise when the EA conclude their investigations.
There have also been three chemical spills with an ammonia leak at the Alpro site in Burton Latimer Industrial Estate in North Hamptonshire, nine people treated following a chlorine leak at Repton School in Derbyshire and six fire crews called to tackle a formaldehyde leak at Southend Hospital.
We report these incidents not to scare you, but hopefully, as a reminder that industrial fires happen, chemical leaks happen and you need an environment plan, equipment and processes to ensure that if the worst were to happen in your business, school or hospital you are equipped to deal with it effectively.
Report land and water pollution incidents
If you see pollution to land or water you can phone the free 24-hour Environment Agency hotline on 0800 807060.
If you’re a business that wants to avoid stiff penalties, fines, damage to your reputation and brand, get in touch and we’ll help make sure you’re acting within the law, we are available from 9 am to 5 pm weekdays.
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.