You may have seen confusing stories about the legality of sewage pollution, especially on social media.
It is true that water industry sewage works are allowed to discharge untreated sewage - but only in accordance with their permits. These will generally specify how much sewage they have to treat before and during the emergency overflows and will specify the reasons they can spill - rain or snowmelt.
It is meant to be in exceptional circumstances but that protection has been largely ignored by our regulators.
Dumping untreated sewage due to groundwater getting into sewers is illegal. Here is a quote from Environment Agency Area Director, Julia Simpson writing to the Upper Thames Fisheries Consultative in July 2019.
‘We expect water companies to identify and take action to minimise infiltration into their sewers. Storm discharges due to excessive infiltration is not a genuine or permitted reason for a storm discharge. We will take action in line with our enforcement and sanction policy where this is identified and causes environmental impact’.
If that isn't convincing enough, here is one from the Head of the Agency, Sir James Bevan in June 2020 to Cotswolds MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown, writing about untreated sewage pollution.
‘This can only be carried out in line with permit conditions, which are designed to ensure the impact of any discharge to the environment is low. It can only be carried out due to rainfall or snowmelt. Discharges of untreated sewage due to groundwater infiltration alone are not permitted.’
Groundwater does not affect sealed and well-maintained sewers but gets into damaged or poorly fitting sewer pipes when the level inevitably rises after wet spells. This inundates sewers and sewage works and the easy answer for the water industry has been to ignore the problem and let it get worse because the Environment Agency has not tackled it for the ensuing pollution. There was never a financial incentive to fix it and the water companies are monopolies, so where else can the customer go?.
The cheap and easy answer has been to dump the problem excess sewage into our rivers and seas and it has been cost-beneficial to pollute with a few occasional fines, even those well into the £ millions.
The enforcement and sanctions policy mentioned by Ms Simpson is at the heart of the problem and means that very little pollution is investigated and even less prosecuted, so pollution is made profitable for an industry that responds principally to financial pressure.
By stripping away the enforcement staff's resources and making them weak and under-supported the Agency leadership has achieved deregulation by stealth. We can see the effects of this with the occasional offence reaching court about 4-5 years after it was committed.
Thames Water fined £2.3m for Henley fish death pollution.
BBC News February 2021
The Chair of the Environment Agency can complain about £2million fines to water companies not being high enough to be a deterrent but Crown Court Judges cannot inflate fines just to make up for an Agency which lets the industry get away with most pollution offences. This is an Agency that chooses to spend a budget of over £1.4 billion mainly elsewhere, while leaving a tiny crew of people, who are not trained policing staff, to investigate criminal offences - sometimes complex and sometimes in confrontational situations, and it seems obvious that they are overwhelmed and under-supported.
Data analysis has identified many spills which last for long periods of weeks and even months, which are caused by groundwater infiltration - often admitted by the industry. It may be that long term groundwater-related sewage spills are the biggest contributors to sewage pollution, especially to rivers that long after rainfall ceases, are no longer in flood or protected by dilution.
The Clanfield example in Oxfordshire went for 5 months 2019/20 and has been going for 4 months 2020/21 so far into a tiny and totally wrecked watercourse.
It is known to be caused by groundwater but Thames Water carries on doing it and the Environment Agency lets them - In fact, this example illustrates all you need to know about the state of regulation in the water industry and is replicated in many more places.
I pause here to say we do not blame the vast majority of water industry staff doing their very best with the hand they have been dealt. That is a story for another blog.
The water industry was privatised to improve the infrastructure we are told, so for it to blame the Victorians or actually the engineers of the 60s and 70s when a lot of these pipes were laid is quite disingenuous - did the industry expect the infrastructure it was given by the state to repair and upgrade itself to cope with modern demands 30 years after it took over and gathered around £60 billion in profit since then? What was the point of privatisation if we as a country were not to benefit from it as well as the shareholders?
If you are someone affected by the myriad of sewage tankering operations shuffling sewage from one flooded sewer to another area, often over many miles, they are often conducted to deal with?
Correct -Groundwater infiltration.
We are not sure what the good people of Eynsham Oxfordshire did to deserve this. The problems causing the sewer floods were mainly or exclusively due to groundwater infiltration far afield, according to our investigations.
So there you have it - Water pollution is illegal unless it is permitted - Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016. Spilling due to groundwater infiltration is not permitted.
If you feel inclined to write to your MP or the Environment Minister, the Head of the Environment Agency or Ofwat, or even the Prime Minister to ask why this has been allowed to reach crisis proportions and what is going to be done to fix it, please do! It will definitely help to raise the profile, and don't be put off or disappointed by the usual unsatisfactory excuses - they are all they have to give you and your messages will help them to realise that.
Surely not being serial criminal offenders is the very, very least we should expect from our water companies.