It is good news that Thames Water wish to show the local community and its locally elected councillors the work they have been doing to improve things in Witney. Their leadership team are coming to the event and it will be open to questions from us all. It’s a massively overdue work in progress and it is obviously welcome.
The new work they are doing costs £8m, the sort of money that might build half a million stand pipes in Africa, or fund 43 metres of building either HS2 or the new Elizabeth Line.
So what can we expect here in Witney for that amount of cash?
There’s some important context for this visit, specific to Witney Sewage Treatment Works. Here’s a summary of what WASP has uncovered:
For many years, as far back as 2004 but possibly earlier than that, the treatment works caused illegal spills of untreated sewage pollution which formed in the Colwell Brook because the weir setting was set incorrectly and enabled the works to spill outside of the permit limitations imposed on it by the Environment Agency.
We’ve come across plenty of occurrences and types of spilling as our readers will be aware, uncovered by Peter Hammond’s detailed and careful analysis of the records which Thames Water and other water companies have provided access to.
At the time this spilling was thought to have gone on for years. The Environment Agency prosecuted, giving evidence of sewage fungus in Colwell Brook and two years later Thames Water was fined £75,000 (according to media reports at the time).
Sewage fungus forms when water is extensively polluted and subjected to long periods of spilling untreated sewage or poor quality treated effluent.
Sewage fungus in Colwell Brook, Witney, 2019
Witney is an example of how Thames Water has been allowed to form a black hole of decay and lack of growth in modern infrastructure.
Only the next year, in December 2007, another illegal spill again caused the death of 650 fish. Sewage fungus was again found in Colwell Brook and two years later in 2009, Thames Water was fined another £10,000. So that’s a total of £85,000 fines for its spilling at Witney over ten years.
During the course of this period there was denial and obfuscation by Thames and an attempt to fob enquiries off by placing blame on a private sewer for the offence, which later turned out to be untrue. Staff at Thames Water told the Environment Agency that the event had ceased, even though at that stage they had not even attended the site to see what was going on. Jump forward now, seven years to 2014... During the wet winter of 2014 a long period of extensive untreated sewage pollution took place. Again sewage fungus formed in the Colwell Brook, killing the ecosystems we know are the markers of a healthy watercourse and creating an obvious health risk to the public.
The Agency did not even attempt to investigate or pursue concerns expressed to them about groundwater infiltration (where the ground is saturated) into the foul sewer: Even though the Agency in its Regulatory Position Statement 2012 identified groundwater infiltration as “unpermittable”, therefore illegal. It still allowed the industry a stay of prosecution if certain conditions were met. In fact around the time of the spilling in 2014 at Witney, two senior members of Thames Water, the Sustainability Director and the Head of Environmental Regulation stated that the works were performing as they were designed to and yes, were spilling due to groundwater infiltration due to a wet winter.
Sewage fungus at Colwell Brook, Witney (video taken in 2019)
There has been a lot of talk and not so much action over a very long, spun out period.
As long ago as 2014 the then Head of Waste Networks at Thames Water, Anthony Crawford, committed to presenting a plan for network improvements.
Sustainability Director, Richard Aylard took away an action in 2014 at a meeting between the Agency, Thames Water, The Upper Thames Fisheries Consultative and the Angling Trust, to hold “a contingency planning meeting between Thames Water and the Agency”, This was in order “to allow options to be discussed for managing similar occurrences in the future and to identify where investment may be beneficial.”
It was the Agency that was responsible for following up on its promises and indeed for setting up the next meeting to progress things.
But it would appear nobody did. In fact, Thames Water robustly stated on BBC Radio Gloucestershire in February 2020 that in respect of long term spilling resulting in sewage fungus at Bourton on the Water it was acting legally. The Agency didn’t stand up for itself, nor its responsibilities nor the public who fund them. Thames Water brazenly ignored anything that had been said in discussion about solving unpermitted spills caused this way. Why does no one want to get involved? How has Thames Water been enabled to ignore its very clear obligations to provide suitable infrastructure and instead to allow its works to pollute the River Windrush with untreated sewage so freely and outside the constraints of its permit? Witney is an example of how Thames Water has been allowed to form a black hole of decay and lack of growth in modern infrastructure. The Environment Agency, whether wittingly or unwittingly, has “fiddled while Rome burned”. If it had engaged the water companies effectively in its own process for managing the classification of overflows then we would be well on the way by now to addressing infrastructure failures, such as at Witney. We are talking about very public places, with obvious risks to the health of people and their pets. If the Agency is responsible for “regulatory compliance” how much further backwards does it need to bend to ensure that Thames feels completely immune on its balance sheet from taking infrastructure investment seriously? So come on Thames Water, you’ve paid £85,000 in fines for the failure to comply with your permit at Witney over the last 18 years – let’s hear how you plan to spend that £8m in Witney and for the clear benefit of the people of Witney. And, crucially, will it be enough?
Witney Sewage Works Open Day is on Friday 9th September 2022, 1.30pm - 2.30pm