Our Comment on the Sewage Scandal

The state of Britain’s rivers has finally hit the headlines and it’s about time.  There is no doubt that our rivers have declined over recent years (Recent data shows only 14% of England’s rivers are in good health and all fail chemical standards) and that the regular dumping of untreated sewage into them by water companies is to blame for a large proportion of the pollution.  Agricultural practices also contribute to pollution with poor soil management and excessive use of pesticides and fertilizer all leading to a decline in water quality. But it’s the routine unlawful dumping of untreated sewage into our precious rivers that has caught the headlines and raised public anger.

But this is not a new problem and is not, as wrongly reported by some, another result of Brexit.In 2009 the European Commission decided to take action over what it believed to be illegal amounts of sewage being dumped by the UK via combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into the sea.  Panorama -Britain’s Dirty beaches showed that year.

Thames Water Prosecuted

Thames Water was fined £20M in 2017 for numerous offences in Didcot, Littlemore, Aylesbury and Henley.  1.9 billion litres of untreated sewage was allowed to enter the Thames.  In 2018 they were fined £2M after hundreds of alarms at a malfunctioning sewage treatment works in Oxfordshire were ignored allows tens of thousands of litres of untreated sewage into river. Again in March 2021 they were fined £2.3M for a 2016 incident at Henley described as “high negligence” and “entirely foreseeable”. In May 2021 they were fined a further £4M for incidents between 2016 and 2019 where 79 million litres of untreated sewage was released into a chalk stream.  When prosecutions take so long to get to court who knows how many outstanding prosecutions are awaiting process?

All this while CEOs receive massive bonuses… Sarah Bentley CEO of Thames Water, has been paid a ridiculous £3.2 million in the last 2 years – why on earth have they rewarded the CEO with a massive £496,000 bonus last year when Thames Water’s environmental performance has been so poor and following a damning report from the EA?!  The latest EA report gives them 2 stars out of 4 “requiring improvement” – in other words their performance has declined, not improved – but pay the boss a bonus anyway!

Asleep at the Wheel or something more sinister

The public had been led to believe all was fine and no doubt most people expected that the regulator, the Environment Agency, were keeping an eye on things and would take enforcement action against anyone breaching pollution control legislation. But no – it is only because of brave and committed volunteers that the cat is now out of the bag.  The government and regulators have either been asleep or all too happy not to rock the boat.  Not so long ago (Aug 2019) the Chair of the EA, Emma Howard Boyd, was writing to The Times to criticise their editorial and claiming rivers were the “cleanest they have been since the industrial revolution” and that “water companies were not free to pollute”…a slight change of tune on 18th July 2022 where she had to admit “water companies performance on pollution had hit a new low”. 

In February 2022, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Water quality is an absolute priority. We are the first Government to set a clear expectation that Ofwat should prioritise action by water companies to protect the environment and deliver the improvements that we all want to see. I have been very clear of my expectations of water companies and where they do not step up we will take robust action.”

This is all too little too late!  Why did the government let water companies start self-reporting pollution incidents at the same time as cutting funding of the EA to the extent they could no longer carry out their pollution monitoring work? Why did the EA remain silent whilst our rivers very visibly deteriorated and even acted as defenders of the water companies on occasion?  Why were they claiming all was OK with our rivers when that was blatantly not the case?  And why was it left to volunteers to drag this issue into the spotlight? 

The newly formed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has now launched an investigation against the Environment Agency (EA), Ofwat and George Eustace as Secretary of State for DEFRA concerning whether they have seriously breached environmental law in not adequately enforcing regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Latest Government Response

The latest reaction from the government is to launch their “Storm Overflow Reduction Strategy” at the end of August this year.  According to the Government, the storm overflows discharge reduction plan “sets stringent new targets to protect people and the environment. This will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history.” But river campaigners are not so easily convinced and the measures have been heavily criticised by many, including WildFish (formerly Trout and Salmon Conservation Trust).  Their lawyers have now issued a legal challenge to the Government’s plans as they have concluded the plan is unlawful on many counts. “The plan allows or otherwise encourages the continuation of breaches of existing environmental laws by the water companies, by Ofwat and by the Sec of State himself for many years to come in some cases until 2050”. 

WASP put Defra on the spot

The most recent blog by the excellent team at WASP sums things up nicely and is a must read here https://www.windrushwasp.org/single-post/did-mps-vote-to-keep-dumping-untreated-sewageThey finish with an excellent letter to Defraasking for the murky financing of water companies and the lack of action by its regulator Ofwat to be investigated.

We add our support to that letter from WASP and look forward to hearing the reply from Defra.  It is well and truly time to stop kicking cans down the road and start holding water companies to account.  Whatever your opinions on privatisation, there is little doubt privatisation of water companies has not provided what was intended and that the murky financial set ups that have resulted need investigation.  Why should the public have to pay for infrastructure improvements twice?  And why do the Government seem so keen to support the status quo which has so clearly only resulted in the decline of our rivers, continued decline of our sewage system and poor value for bill payers whilst ridiculous salary packages are paid to CEO’s and shareholders are rewarded handsomely. 

Let Thames Water Know How You Feel!

You are not able to choose your water company – but you can let them know what you think of their performance (and Thames Water rated very badly in the most recent ratings here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/water-and-sewerage-companies-in-england-environmental-performance-report-2021/thames-water-epa-data-report-2021 ). 

Please do write to them (Thames Water, PO Box 436, Swindon, SN38 1TU) and let them know what you think of the state of our rivers and their poor performance.