Rain in the sea

Beaches across Britain issue pollution warnings

Image credit: Foto 14453169 © Antares614 | Dreamstime.com

The heavy storms that have greeted the UK after months of little rain have overwhelmed the country's sewage system, making over 40 beaches and swimming pools subject to pollution warnings.

Swimmers have been advised to avoid beaches and swimming pools across England and Wales due to pollution from sewage waters. 

The south-west and south coast of England were the worst affected, according to data gathered by the environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

Nine beaches in Sussex, seven in Cornwall, four in Devon, three on the Isle of Wight and three in Essex are amongst those polluted by storm sewage overflows after the recent downpours. Swimming spots in Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Bristol and South Wales have also been affected.

There has been growing public outrage in recent years at the volume of raw or partially-treated sewage pumped into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters. Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of SAS, took to Twitter to on Tuesday decrying the situation, describing it as “the shitstorm after the calm.”

In July, the Environment Agency's annual assessment found an increase in polluting activities from most of England’s water and sewage companies. In its report, the agency identified 62 “serious pollution incidents” that occurred last year, up from 44 the year before, in what it describes as the “worst we have seen for years”.

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.

“The current risk of surface water flooding reinforces the need for robust action from water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows," said an Environment Agency spokesman. "We are monitoring the current situation and supporting local authorities where needed.”

Last month, a University of Portsmouth study revealed that the UK’s wastewater infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to “pollution events” due to climate change, a prediction that the recent storms that hit the UK during the month of August seem to confirm.

While wastewater facilities have been engineered to withstand varying environmental factors to an extent, the study finds they are increasingly being put under extreme stress.

“Yesterday’s thunderstorms brought heavy rain which fell on to parched ground and couldn’t absorb surface run-off, meaning that more rain than usual overwhelmed our network," said a spokesman for Southern Water. 

“This led to some overflows – which are used to protect homes, schools, businesses and hospitals from flooding – spilling excess water into the sea in parts of west Sussex, including Seaford. These discharges are heavily diluted and typically 95 per cent of them are rainwater."

Last year Southern Water was fined a record £90m for deliberately dumping vast amounts of sewage into the sea across the south coast. Under EU law, these kinds of sewage discharges are only permitted in "exceptional" circumstances, such as instances when heavy rain risks pipes overflowing. However, in 2020 and 2021, there were almost 400,000 such events.

Surfers against sewage map showing the polluted beach sites across the UK as of August 18, 2022

Surfers against sewage map showing the polluted beach sites across the UK as of August 18, 2022 / Surfers against sewage

Image credit: Surfers against sewage

“At times of heavy rainfall, all water companies use storm overflows as a relief valve on our sewer network to protect the homes of customers and the environment from sewer flooding," said Northumbrian Water said. "Such discharges happen with both permission and scrutiny from the Environment Agency.

“We have invested heavily in upgrades to our wastewater network in the last two decades and beyond, which have played an important part in these results, and we continue to do so."

Anglian Water, which supplies Lincolnshire and also provides wastewater services at Southend, added: “Combined storm overflows (CSOs) were originally designed to protect homes and businesses from flooding during heavy rainfall, like we saw last night.

“In parts of our region last night, we saw almost 100ml of rainfall in only a few hours. That’s the equivalent of well over a month’s worth on to ground that is essentially like concrete. As it’s been dry for so long, intense rainfall on to hard ground will not soak in and instead runs straight off.”

A spokeswoman said any discharges would predominantly have been rainwater, adding its BeachAware system had notified SAS of the discharge “as a precaution so people can make educated decisions about swimming in the sea”.

She added: “However, we recognise that they are no longer the right solution when sewers become overloaded with rainwater. Between 2020 and 2025, we’re investing more than £200 million to reduce storm spills across the East of England and, as part of our Get River Positive commitment, we’ve promised that storm overflows will not be the reason for unhealthy rivers in our region by 2030.”

The government has said it intends to produce a plan by September this year to reduce storm overflows, as it is required by the Environment Act of 2021.


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