Environment Agency launches major investigation into sewage – Guardian commentary

Water Briefing: ‘Responses NGOs and MPs have welcomed the launch of the Environment Agency’s and Ofwat’s investigation into sewage treatment works – but criticised the regulators’ action as “long overdue” and for their failure to apologise for the long delay in taking action.

EAC – “far too many waterways being damaged by unacceptable sewage spills”

Reacting to the EA’s and Ofwat’s investigation announced yesterday, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:

“Our waterways are the arteries of nature, far too many of which are being damaged by unacceptable sewage spills.

“I welcome the EA’s and Ofwat’s new investigation, frankly long overdue, seeking to understand better the true scale of the problem of water companies spilling untreated sewage. It is clear that with decades of under-investment in our sewerage network there are no quick fixes, but it is welcome that the Government, through the Environment Act passed into law last week, is already taking action to get a grip on this unacceptable activity.

“My Committee has been examining, in depth, the current regulatory structures around permitted discharges. We will be reporting our conclusions on the adequacy of the existing system when we issue the report of our inquiry into Water Quality in Rivers.”

Rivers Trust  – “public trust in the government and the water industry is at an all-time low”

Michelle Walker, Deputy Technical Director Rivers Trust separately welcomed the “long-overdue step up” in enforcement of existing law by the regulators, provided it is rigorous and thorough. The Trust wants to see this lead to rapid and proportional penalties on businesses, managers and shareholders, with the money levied spent directly on fixing the environmental damage caused.

The Rivers Trust also said a long-term step-change is needed in how privatised industry is regulated to safeguard the environment with the same level of scrutiny applied consistently to the whole wastewater treatment network, not just a subset of sites.

Michelle Walker continued:

“People rightly expect that the government will hold profit-driven businesses to a high environmental standard in return for them taking a profit from essential services such as water and wastewater provision, but it is self-evident that this has not happened.

“An under-resourced Environment Agency has taken the path of least resistance, but some of the high profile court cases have shown just the tip of the iceberg of the consequences of lack of thorough enforcement of the law. Detailed auditing of wastewater treatment works and storm overflows should be the very least we can expect, yet we’ve seen more scrutiny being applied by citizen scientists than by the government regulator.

“Public trust in the government and the water industry is at an all-time low, and the 40,000 people who wrote to their MPs recently have highlighted the need for much greater transparency in terms of enforcing regulation, consenting and monitoring of pollution from privatised industry.”

CCW – ” impossible to overstate the seriousness of the investigation”

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, the independent watchdog for water consumers in England and Wales, said it was impossible to overstate the seriousness of the investigation, commenting:

“Customers pay their money to wastewater companies in good faith, expecting them to be able to be trusted to provide high quality services while protecting the environment.”

“Should this investigation lead to prosecutions we would want to see those fines used locally to repair the environmental harm that has been caused.”

S&TC – “an admission of shocking failure by the regulators”

Both the Government and regulators alike are the target of trenchant criticism from the Salmon &Trout Conservation (S&TC) – the independent charity is a long-term campaigner for the protection of wild fish and their environment.

Pointing out that the Government has admitted to “a massive failure to prevent illegal dumping of raw sewage in our rivers”, the S&TC said that research from Professor Peter Hammond of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution and work by the S&TC – including a detailed complaint to the (then) interim Office for Environmental Protection made early this year – has exposed “routine criminal breaching of discharge permits.”

“Now, with the threat of installing new monitors, water companies have started to own up to their crimes which has finally forced our regulators to act” the S&TC said.

Nick Measham, CEO at S&TC commented:

“Our report earlier this year, on the Environment Agency’s first 25 years, pointed out the problems which have been obvious to many for years.

We welcome any action to prevent water companies systematically and illegally dumping sewage in rivers, but this is also an admission of shocking failure by the regulators as well.

Government needs to consider how to restore public faith in both water companies and in our environmental regulator. Perhaps it might decide that some heads should roll?”

Guy Linley-Adams, Solicitor for S&TC added:

“This action is at least a decade too late. But better late than never. But where is the shame? Where is the apology from the two complicit regulators, the Environment Agency and OFWAT, and from DEFRA itself?

Collectively, they made this appalling sewage pollution of our rivers possible with years of weak ‘look-the-other-way’ regulation of the water companies, allowing the companies to self-monitor their own sewage works and failing to require anything like adequate investment in sewerage infrastructure.

“We expect the water companies to breach permits, because complying with permits costs money, money they would rather pay out in dividends.

“But the public will want to know how the Environment Agency, and OFWAT, and DEFRA dare put out their respective statements, without also apologising for their manifest failures to protect our rivers over many years.”

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