UK Water Companies Probed for Suspected Illegal Sewage Discharge

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Accusations of illicit activities lurk over three leading water companies in the United Kingdom suspected of releasing sewage illegally into waterways on dry days, breaching permit regulations, as revealed by an inquiry conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

As a response, the Environment Agency of England has embarked on its own criminal investigation alongside an ongoing inquiry towards potentially illicit discharges by all water companies. Furthermore, the UK’s environment watchdog maintains a growing suspicion that the government and water regulators have breached the law in their regulation of sewage releases. This revelation comes on the heels of a multi-year critique of water corporations due to rampant incidents of raw sewage discharges and their subsequent impacts on UK’s waterways.

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The UK has a predominantly combined sewerage system with the same pipes carrying rainwater and wastewater emanating from toilets, bathrooms, and kitchens. Normally, waste is transported to a sewage treatment plant. During times of heavy rainfall and low absorption rates, the capacity might be surpassed, potentially resulting in beleaguered sewage facilities and the flooding of homes, roads, and open areas. As a safety measure, the system is crafted to periodically overflow, discharging excess wastewater into seas and rivers, a practice permitted and known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Contrary to this, evidence suggests that a few water companies are discharging sewage on dry days, raising the concentrations of sewage in the water due to lack of dilution and rendering the act illegal. Recent investigations pinpointed 388 potential “dry spills” by Thames, Wessex, and Southern Water in 2022 alone. Water corporations found guilty of violating permit conditions or spilling on dry days could face prosecution or fines.

In April, the government announced a new plan to enhance water quality, noting the possibility of imposing unlimited fines on violators. The government plans to funnel penalties from water companies into a new Water Restoration Fund dedicated to improving water quality. Nonetheless, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey confessed that an overnight cessation of pollution is implausible given the substantial changes required by the water system. She advised that infrastructural developments like super sewers might spike people’s bills significantly, potentially reaching a 40% increase by the decade’s end as reported by The Times.

The Environment Agency routinely monitors pollution across England, providing weekly assessments and daily pollution risk forecasts at certain locations during the May to September period. Similar resources are available for information on the water quality in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Surfers Against Sewage, a campaign group, provides an interactive map indicating pollution risk warnings along coasts and rivers.

People are strongly advised to steer clear of the water during instances of untreated sewage discharge due to potential contamination and health risks. Surprisingly, some have asserted that Brexit is to blame, claiming that the UK has opted to lower its water quality standards since leaving the EU. Despite these allegations, the EU laws did not directly regulate the frequency or number of sewage discharges. Friends of the Earth claim that the UK’s Environment Act 2021, which replaced the EU laws, introduced beneficial changes, such as attempts to halt companies from polluting waterways with sewage.

Unfortunately, as sewage spills have only been routinely monitored in recent years, tracking their development over time proves difficult. Yet overall water quality has been gauged for decades, taking into account various pollution sources including agriculture. As of now, “good” ecological status has been declared for 63% of surface waters in Scotland, 40% in Wales, and 31% in Northern Ireland.