Wastewater treatment plant

MPs demand action as data calls into question water company self-monitoring

Image credit: Wastewater treatment plant. 27977639 © Pa2011 | Dreamstime.com

Self-monitoring by water companies is a hundred times less likely to find breaches than Environment Agency (EA) testing of private wastewater treatment plants E&T has found, leading to calls from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) for a “step-change” in the way water quality monitoring is carried out.

Data obtained by E&T through freedom of information rules has found that on average, from 2017 to 2020, of the almost 300,000 samples taken by water companies at wastewater treatment plants, just 228 water quality breaches were reported. This amounts to a failure rate of 0.08 per cent.

In comparison, EA monitoring of just over 45,000 private sewage discharges found a total of 3740 breaches, equating to a failure rate of 8.3 per cent.

The EA said the failure rate of private discharges, for instance at pubs, hotels and nursing homes, is higher as a percentage than for water companies because wastewater treatment is not their primary business.

But chair of the EAC, Philip Dunne, told E&T it was clear based on current evidence, that “existing practices do not allow for the full picture of water quality at sewage treatment works.

“We need more thorough monitoring to inform the steps government is taking to clear up the chemical cocktail that all too often ends up coursing through our rivers,” he said.

Dunne added that witnesses to the committee’s inquiries on water pollution had said operator self-monitoring was “open to widespread abuse, with operators only doing enough to pass the pre-planned checks”.

“Further, we heard that regulatory testing of sewage treatment works effluents is very intermittent,” he added.

Data obtained by E&T also revealed that EA inspections of water company treatment works fell by more than a half – from 778 inspections in 2019 to 362 - in the first year of the pandemic.

EA inspections of wastewater treatment plants

EA inspections of wastewater treatment plants plummeted during the pandemic

Image credit: EA inspections of wastewater treatment plants

An EA spokesperson said site inspections “ran at a reduced rate during the pandemic in line with government advice to minimise the risk to staff, water company personnel and the public”. 

“This does not mean that regulation decreased. In addition to onsite inspections, we also conduct data analysis and special audits to monitor water wastewater treatment works,” they added.

However, rivers campaigner Fergal Sharkey said cuts to the EA budget in 2015 under Liz Truss, the then environment secretary, had undermined the effectiveness of the regulator.

He told E&T that Truss, who was sworn in as prime minister yesterday, “had cut the hell out of the EA’s budget, leaving the organisation crippled”.

“[The EA] simply doesn’t have the staff, the wherewithal, the ability to go and monitor and take samples and ensure people are complying with the law,” he said.

A spokesperson for the trade body Water UK, which represents water companies, said: “In England, more than 90 per cent of storm overflows are currently monitored, with full coverage expected by the end of next year. This puts us ahead of almost all other countries, providing data that allows companies and regulators to prioritise work where it is needed most.”

However, last November the Environment Agency and water regulator Ofwat launched an investigation involving more than 2000 sewage treatment works after water companies admitted that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses.

The water companies only reported concerns over potential problems just before they were due to install new monitors at their sewage treatment works, the EA said at the time, prompting the EA chair Emma Howard Boyd to describe the development as “a major issue of public trust”.

Sharkey added that the government’s decision in 2010 to allow water companies to self-report, was “ideologically driven, there was no science to it, there was no clinical observation behind it”.

He added that now, Truss’ leadership win had created “a perfect storm”.

“In the middle of a cost of crisis living we have a prime minister, who based on sheer ideology, is prepared to utterly devastate the environment in the pursuit of market economics,” he said.

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