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Longer Reads

Sold down the river

How the water industry pollutes our rivers
and gets away with it


Our rivers are used to dump untreated sewage

Thames Water and the other UK water companies are allowed to release untreated sewage into our rivers and onto fields when there is unusually heavy rainfall and it is decided that they are unable to cope with the flow. However, what sound like exceptional conditions are interpreted leniently and are more in tune with what the works can easily manage than what is good for the river.


Sometimes raw sewage is partly screened to take out the nappies, condoms and sanitary towels (to name a few of the things the treatment works have to contend with as people 'flush and forget'). Sometimes it is not even screened. Some treatment works have a storm tank to try to hold untreated sewage back for a while; some do not. History shows that this emergency option has been widely abused, often illegally, to save money. By avoiding recording how many times they overflow sewage, the companies have been able to hide the evidence that sewage works need to be improved.

Anchor 1

Legalised chronic pollution

The Environment agency naturally attracts people who care about nature and want to do a good job. They are, however, up against their own organisation right from the start: under government instruction, the EA not only permits this pollution, it does not even require the companies to know when they pollute or how much pollution they release -  and won't do until 2020 at the earliest.

They were given 8 years to do this at most works in 2012, and are leaving it until the last minute. On the River Windrush we have seven sewage treatments works. Six of those, collectively treating over 9000 people's waste, only treat to the first two basic stages before releasing the effluent to the river. This pollution has all gone in by the time the river gets past Burford. At Witney it will receive sewage from another 49928 people (2017 figures). Imagine that total of nearly 60000 people's body waste and add the shampoo, dishwasher and washing machine detergent, corrosive cleaners and the rest of modern living that goes into the sink, showers and toilets of every house. Imagined it? Hold that thought!

The Water Companies supervise themselves with minimal if any Environment Agency checks. The 'unusually heavy rain' exception seems to have been watered down to 'heavy rain' - and that might be a shower or, as we recently heard, some melting snow. Thames Water are not required to alert the public when they release untreated sewage, even though people may swim in it and allow dogs to swim and drink from it as well as livestock to be supplied with water from it. What goes around, comes around...

Sewage treatment is outdated

It often means no more than sifting out the large debris and stirring the sewage round in tanks where it notionally remains for about 8 hours (who knew those bacteria could act so quickly, especially in winter and in a soup of antibacterial cleaners?) with some air to feed the bacteria.  The sediment is allowed to settle and the effluent is discharged into the nearest river or stream.

This was a system perhaps fit for purpose when sewage meant human waste and some soap - but not now as populations grow in size and powerful chemical products are in abundance. Sewage works are not required to test for many of the chemicals or hormones they undoubtedly release. Oestrogen from birth control medicines has been changing the sex of fish in our rivers and can cause fish populations to crash. To turn a blind eye to all of this, many sewage works are required to test just three things: Biological Oxygen Demand, suspended solids and ammonium. Not even for phosphates - which are known to be serious pollutants. Sewage is often by far the main source of damaging phosphate levels in a river.


There is a third stage of sewage treatment which removes phosphates, but this is only applied to the most sensitive environments. This saves the water companies some money (our question of how much money remains unanswered...) at the expense of our environment. Sewage works treating a population of less than ten thousand do not have to remove phosphates from their effluent even when they discharge into a very small river or stream

Privatisation of the water industry

The water industry was privatised in 1989 to provide investment for an underfunded public sector industry. This created what are effectively monopolies for the regions and opened the gates to huge profits. The industry is regulated by the Department for the Environment Farming and Rural Affairs, The Environment Agency and OFWAT.  Since 1989, whilst about £18 BILLION in dividends has gone to shareholders, the companies have continued to pollute, often due to poor maintenance and insufficient investment.

A history of negligence and non compliance

Thames Water was fined £20 MILLION in 2017 for dumping raw sewage into the river Thame and the Thames from the Aylesbury works. This is what the judge, Francis Sheridan, said:

“I have to make the fine sufficiently large that [Thames Water] get the message”.

Describing the breaches as “wicked” and noting the companies' “continual failure to report incidents” and “history of non-compliance”, he said:

“One has to get the message across to the shareholders that the environment is to be treasured and protected, and not poisoned.”

This was after a series of  similar offences including one on the Windrush in 2006 which went on unchecked for years. It looks like it was cheaper to be fined occasionally than it was to do the job legally. Throughout this period Thames Water was inspecting itself - and of course not reporting its failings. Even after all of this, they are still authorised to police themselves!

Dedicated Environment Agency staff achieved an excellent result at Aylesbury - but the offence was discovered by a member of the public, not through inspection or EA supervision. We know the Environment Agency is full of people who want to make a difference. If it has been unable to stop 80% of our rivers failing to maintain good health, it is not because the staff lack commitment: it is because successive governments have been happy for it to happen. They have let the environment be wrecked as private industry profit has been king in a public infrastructure domain. There really can be no other answer - unless the Government is not in control of its own departments.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government has been either complicit or inept.

Murky waters

The cloudy nature of the ownership of the water companies by overseas investment firms has been widely reported in the Financial Times, Guardian and Telegraph to name a few. You will find some good articles there. Still nothing is done other than the odd change of CEO and promises to be better until the next time. Successive Governments have watched from the sidelines and continue to do so.

Thames Water made £742 million profit in 2015/16 - so the £20 million fine only represented about 10 days' profit.

Little or no control on what goes in

The hard working and professional Thames Water employees (and we have met some) who try to make the best of this are not helped by a country which allows the sale of products like non-degradable wet wipes and plastic cotton buds which clog up the system. Ineffective government control of what goes into our environment is a recurrent theme, and is mirrored in the plastic packaging debacle. The fatberg was born!

Low standards

Our Government, through Defra and the Environment Agency, sets low standards and is unable and seemingly unwilling to police them effectively. The water industry, even after being caught cheating time and again is still allowed to check on itself. Yes, we know that they have staff with integrity. We also wonder how easy it is for a treatment works manager to report that the works have failed their permitted targets. Or should they test them again another day? Thames Water say they want to do better (although their history makes that hard to swallow) but can and will only do what the Environment Agency requires and Ofwat allows. They are permitted to release untreated sewage - and it will cost them money not to. It is a simple business decision for them. They do not have to fix the system that allows surface run-off to overload the works - so they don't. This is a cynical abuse of our safety and environment which has been hidden from view for years. And we are actually paying them for this, as we also now pay the price with the health of our country!

You still thought your health and environment were being protected?

So did we.  The Government and the Environment Agency appear to have no control over the cocktail of chemicals which enter a sewage treatment system which relies mainly on bacterial action.

Is it safe to eat the fish? According to Thames Water, if you want to eat a fish or crayfish from one of the region's rivers you should keep it alive in clean fresh water (not from the river!) for three days to remove toxins. The Environment Agency will licence you to catch invasive Red Signal Crayfish, even commercially, but have not had the foresight to test them or the fish for food safety. We are raising funds to do that. If we were witnessing the death of most of our land-based plants and trees it would be an obvious catastrophe...but the cover of water and its increasing murkiness are used to hide the truth.

Is there hope at the end of the tunnel?  Not without your support. We asked the EA for their plan to bring the Windrush back to good environmental status and they don't have one. We wrote via our MP to Defra complaining about inaction and got a shockingly disinterested response from Under Secretary of State for the Environment, Dr Therese Coffey, who did not even show any professional curiosity about the dramatic weed loss evident in the photos here. This is particularly surprising, as the presence and state of aquatic plants is a key health indicator. This sort of 'leadership' is a major part of the problem, not the solution.

Think this can't be true? Want  to see some corroboration? Take a look at the WWF 'Flushed Away' Report about their investigation into sewage pollution nationally. But don't forget to like our Facebook page and follow our blog. We need your support.

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