waste water

Water firms still failing to adequately reduce pollution incidents, regulator says

Water companies are consistently failing to meet their expectations on environmental performance, with too many pollution-related incidents, the Environment Agency (EA) has said in its annual report.

The Environment Agency's report found that whilst there were improvements in 2020, no single company achieved all its expectations for the period 2015 to 2020. These included the reduction of total pollution incidents by at least one-third compared with 2012 and for incident self-reporting to be at least 75 per cent.

The report also found that the sector coped well with Covid-19 pressures in 2020 and recently committed over £850m to help contribute to a green recovery from the pandemic. It added that a number of companies are still failing to live up to their responsibilities to regulators, their customers and the environment.

Southern Water and South West Water were rated as the companies least likely to meet environmental expectations, followed by Anglian Water and Thames Water.

The five other water firms (Northumbrian Water; Severn Trent Water; United Utilities; Wessex Water, and Yorkshire Water) were rated more highly, although certain improvements are still required, the EA said.

Serious pollution incidents declined for the second year in a row to the lowest number ever, but while there were 285 fewer total pollution incidents than in 2019 it was still the second highest number of total incidents since 2015.

Southern Water and South West Water both performed significantly below target for this metric; Southern Water for the second year in a row and South West Water for the tenth year in the row.

“Both companies’ performances have been consistently unacceptable,” the EA said. “Over half of serious incidents were also due to Anglian Water and Thames Water.”

The results come the week after Southern Water was sentenced to pay a record-breaking £90m fine after pleading guilty in court to 6,971 unpermitted pollution discharges.

EA chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “Over half the water sector is now achieving the highest industry rating, showing that clear targets and regulatory focus combined with investment in the environment delivers change in the water sector.

“Some companies are still failing in their duty to the environment and there remains a tendency to reach for excuses rather than grasp the nettle. As last week’s £90m fine for Southern Water showed, environmental laws must not be undermined.

“I have been meeting water company chairs in the last few weeks to set out our expectations for them to redouble their efforts to improve or maintain their environmental performance, something which continues to be a priority for both customers and shareholders.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Water companies have environmental responsibilities and they must realise them. They have a legal duty to avoid pollution to our rivers and other waterways.”

Iain Vosper, South West Water’s director of waste water services, said: “We take our guardianship of the natural environment very seriously and want to do more. We are disappointed with aspects of our environmental performance for 2020 and with minor pollution incidents.

“We are pleased to say that so far in 2021 we have achieved 60 per cent lower than the figure reported today in the EPA report for the same period last year.”

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