Dirty sewage water pours into the river through a pipe in the concrete wall.

Water firms told to set out plans for ending sewage spills

Image credit: Dreamstime

Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has announced that water and sewerage firms in England will be required to provide "a clear plan" for reducing spills from all their storm overflows.

The UK government has announced a consultation to introduce measures that would make it easier to inflict fines upon sewage and water companies that continue to dump excessive waste into swimming, shellfish and nature sites.

Less than a year after it was found that many water firms released “potentially illegal” sewage discharges across the UK, the government has taken steps to rein in the sector. 

Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, has said England’s ten wastewater companies must issue an improvement plan for every storm outflow, showing the amount of waste that will be spilt and efforts to reduce it. 

Currently, there are 15,000 storm overflows in England. These are used to dump sewage in rivers and the sea when treatment works’ capacity is overwhelmed by rainfall.

However, a 2022 report by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) showed that some water companies offloaded untreated sewage into waterways even when there hasn’t been any rain. Last summer, SAS claimed that there were 5,504 incidences of raw sewage being dumped into bathing waters.

“People are concerned about the impacts of sewage and I am crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable,” Coffey said. “We need to be clear that this is not a new problem. Storm overflows have existed for over a century. The law has always allowed for discharges, subject to regulation.

“I am now demanding every company to come back to me with a clear plan for what they are doing on every storm overflow, prioritising those near sites where people swim and our most precious habitats.”

In addition to its improvement plans, companies will also be expected to provide the number of spills they did last year, how long they lasted and the cause, such as too much groundwater infiltrating sewage networks.

Those firms that fail to comply will face enforcement action from the Environment Agency (EA), ranging from fines to cover any damage caused to criminal prosecution for the most serious cases. 

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that on the “on the upper limit of fines, all options – including £250 million – remain on table”.

Overall, industry bodies have backed the government’s initiative. 

“Water companies wholeheartedly support the government’s ambition and agree with the urgent need for action,” a spokesman for the trade body Water UK said.

However, Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said water bosses should be held to account.

“If Thérèse Coffey really wanted to clean up the Tory sewage scandal, she would implement Labour’s robust approach rather than yet another ‘improvement plan’,” he said. 

In June 2022, the Environment Agency published a report identifying 62 “serious pollution incidents” that occurred last year, up from 44 the year before, in what it described as the worst performance on pollution seen in years.

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

Sewage spills can also have serious public health consequences. Hospitals nationwide have reported some 400 accounts of sickness from people swimming and surfing in bathing waters.

Some of the worst cases of sickness included leptospirosis and kidney failure.

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