Polluted water in rainforest

Polluting water company bosses should face prison, says Environment Agency

Image credit: Foto 9191909 © Rechitan Sorin | Dreamstime.com

The top executives of England’s water companies should face jail time over "appalling" levels of pollution, the Environment Agency concludes in its latest report.

The Environment Agency's annual assessment has found an increase in polluting activities from most of England's water and sewage companies, with performance on pollution falling to its lowest level since 2013. 

In light of the "appalling" situation, the regulator has called for the organisations' executives to face prison time if they oversee serious and repeated pollution incidents, as enforcement action and court fines for breaching environmental laws have proved to be unable to improve environmental performance.

In its report, the agency identifies 62 "serious pollution incidents" that occurred last year, up from 44 the year before, in what it describes as the worst performance on pollution seen in years.

In its conclusions, the agency rates four of the country’s nine water companies as “requiring significant improvement”, while two others, Southern and South West Water, were described by the agency as “terrible across the board”. Only three companies - Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities - received the highest rating. 

In a damning judgment, the Environment Agency's chairwoman, Emma Howard Boyd, called for much stricter penalties to be imposed upon water companies that release sewage into rivers.

“Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable,” she said. “Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price. The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason - because they can. We intend to make it too painful for them to continue as they are.”

The EA rates water companies based on the number and severity of pollution incidents, the self-reporting of these incidents and the use and disposal methods of sewage sludge, amongst other factors. 

Since 2015, the agency has imposed fines of over £138m on water companies that have failed to meet its environmental protection standards. Last year, it concluded seven prosecutions against water and sewerage companies with fines of £90m, £4m, £2.3m, £1.5m, £150,000 and £540,000. More prosecutions are currently progressing in court.

However, the EA has pointed out that the fines imposed often amount to less than a chief executive's salary, and therefore do not result in meaningful change. 

"This report shows that water companies are ignoring their legal responsibilities," a Defra spokesperson said. "Water company chiefs cannot continue to make huge profits whilst polluting our waters."

The EA and Ofwat have begun investigating the polluting practices of water companies, following several firms' admission that they may have been illegally discharging sewage into rivers and seas for years. In addition, the EA along with Ofwat (the water industry regulator) and Defra, is being investigated by the new industry watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, for potentially failing to regulate sewage releases.

In response to the assessment, industry body Water UK chief executive Christine McGourty admitted that the industry "must do better". 

"Although there were companies that demonstrated excellent performance, the total number of serious pollution incidents was too high, bucking the recent trend of year-on-year improvements," she added. "Tackling this is our single biggest priority and every company has a comprehensive plan in place to make that happen."

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