Sewage dumps in English rivers widespread, criminal investigation suspects | Pollution

A criminal investigation into water companies in England has revealed widespread illegal sewage discharge from sewage treatment plants, the Environment Agency has found.

The survey of more than 2,200 water treatment plants operated by the 10 water companies examines whether the companies breached legal regulations regarding when and how often they are allowed to discharge raw sewage into waterways. ‘water.

The EA said an initial review of hundreds of water company documents “confirmed that there may have been widespread and serious non-compliance with relevant regulations”.

Failure to comply with legal regulations amounts to illegal dumping of raw sewage and criminal penalties apply. Last year Southern Water was fined a record £90million for illegally discharging billions of liters of raw sewage into coastal waters off Hampshire and Kent. The company argued in court that the dumps were not deliberate and said it was committed to transformation, transparency and cultural change.

The revelations came as members of the public, NGOs and charities dismissed as too little and too late the government’s plans to reduce the scale of discharges of raw sewage into rivers and seas.

Among the objectives drawn up by the government and put out for consultation are the obligation for water companies to reduce the frequency of discharges into bathing waters by 70% by 2035, or to significantly reduce the harmful pathogens they contain, for example by using ultraviolet radiation.

By 2040, 160,000 discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in all waters are expected to be eliminated, and by 2050, ministers promise to eliminate about 320,000 discharges, about 80% of the total, in all waters.

Quick guide

What are the main pollutants of English rivers?


The cocktail of pollutants choking English rivers comes from three main sources:

• Agricultural pollution: the use of fertilizers and pesticides and intensive livestock and poultry farming can all contribute to poor water quality, as rainfall runoff from agricultural land carries chemicals and pollutants. feces in streams and rivers.

• Sewers and waste water: Discharges from combined sewer overflows, which should only be used after exceptional rains, are now commonplace. They combine with urban runoff like a huge chemical cocktail: fecal microbes, hydrocarbons, industrial chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

• Runoff water from cities and transport, called urban diffuse pollution. In built-up areas, pollutants accumulate on hard surfaces such as roads and parking lots which can then be washed into the sewer system during rainfall. It enters surface water drainage systems, the pollutants are then discharged directly into rivers, streams or estuaries without treatment where they can cause acute or chronic problems

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The latest figures from the Environment Agency recorded the scale of raw sewage discharge from the 15,000 storm overflows in England in 2021 as 372,533 discharges for a combined total of more than 2.7 million time. In 2020, there were over 400,000 wastewater discharges, totaling over 3 million hours.

The majority, 55.2 per cent, of the 18,268 people who responded to the consultation via 38 Degrees, a campaign group which regularly helps the public respond to government consultations, disagreed with the timing and scope government objectives. When asked further, 83.9% said that the deadlines proposed by the government were far too long.

Matt Richards, campaign manager at 38 Degrees, said: “The conclusion we can draw is that whatever opinions people have on the proposed targets, the overwhelming majority want the government to act much faster. than it currently offers.”

Christine Colvin, of the Rivers Trust, said: “We believe this plan gives us too little, too late. We need to see a broader scope that includes clear milestones for government as well as water companies, and much more urgency and ambition. We want to have rivers that are healthy and suitable for people and wildlife within the decade, not by 2050.”

Any discharge of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters by storm overflows is supposed to take place only after extreme weather conditions and under the conditions of permits issued by the EA.

Fish Legal, in its response to the consultation, also rejected the timing and approach proposed by ministers. He said the ambition to reduce discharges into bathing waters was “extremely limited”.

The legal group also condemned the whole approach of the reduction plan. He said: ‘There appears to be an assumption going on in this consultation that most storm overshoots only occur due to excessive rainfall… The Environment Agency, as the regulator , also seems to have worked on this hypothesis… Our members and the public therefore do not share the confidence of the Environment Agency.

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“The Environment Agency has previously taken a passive approach to regulating these discharges, relying on water companies to collect and even analyze the relevant data. At least the major ongoing investigation into water company permit compliance is a tacit admission that operator self-monitoring and self-reporting – a situation in which water companies monitor their own work and report their own permit compliance – didn’t work.

A report by the environmental audit committee in January found that rivers were subject to a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic pollution.

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