Sewage release

UK may have broken environmental laws regulating sewage releases

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Environmental watchdog says the government and public bodies allowed water companies to discharge more sewage than legally permitted.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) accused the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), regulator Ofwat and the Environment Agency of breaking the law that regulates sewage releases. 

The OEP said there may have been “misinterpretations of some key points of law” that have allowed discharges to occur more often than permitted.

In response, Defra said it did not agree with the OEP’s “initial interpretations”, but admitted that “the volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. Meanwhile, the EA and Ofwat welcomed the investigation. 

Water companies’ performance on the environment is simply not good enough,” an Ofwat spokesperson said. “We will keep pushing for the change.”

The OEP said it began its investigation into the matter last June, after receiving a complaint from charity WildFish, alleging failures to comply with legal duties relating to the monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ management of sewage.

“Let's be quite clear here. Those three public bodies are complicit in allowing the pollution. That must now end,” WildFish said. 

Currently, water companies are permitted to release sewage into rivers and seas, but only during exceptional circumstances, in which it is deemed necessary to avoid it backing up into homes and businesses.

However, investigations by the BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian and other news outlets have revealed that this has been happening much more often. These revelations recently led the 10 English water management companies to issue a joint apology, recognising they failed to address sewage spills in beaches and rivers quickly enough.

The companies have faced public anger after it was revealed that there had been a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day, according to the EA. 

“Where we interpret the law to mean that untreated sewage discharges should generally be allowed only in exceptional circumstances ... it appears that the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently,” said OEP chief regulatory officer Helen Venn.

“The guidance provided by government to regulators, and the permitting regime they put in place for the water companies, possibly allow untreated sewage discharges to occur more regularly than intended by the law without risk of sanction.”

The OEP said all authorities could have a level of responsibility related to the breaches. The EA could have broken the law in regards to its role devising guidance and setting and enforcing permit conditions for sewage spills. Meanwhile, Ofwat could have failed to make enforcement orders where sewerage undertakers did comply with the rules. 

Defra’s potential failures could be related to the urban waste water and water quality legislation, and its duty to make enforcement orders where sewerage companies fail to effectively deal with sewage.

Charles Watson, chairman of charity River Action, said: “It's no surprise to us that the first enforcement action the OEP is pursuing against the government is over sewage pollution. Our rivers are in crisis.”

In June 2022, the EA published a report identifying 62 “serious pollution incidents” occurring in 2021, up from 44 the previous year, 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 not improved environmental performance.

In May, Water UK promised to undertake the largest modernisation of England’s sewer system “since the Victorian era”, which will cut the number of overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared with the level in 2020.

The OEP has issued information notices to each authority in order to gather the details regarding each of their involvement on the matter. They were given two months to respond and set out proposed measures to address the issues.

Six water companies in England are also facing legal action over claims of under-reporting the number of times they cause pollution incidents and overcharging customers as a result.

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