Thames Water has a new CEO, Sarah Bentley, reportedly due for a paycheck of around £12 million for her first three years, including a golden handshake of £3 million.
We have already seen her in action at the Chalk Stream Summit with Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, where WASP asked some questions as you saw in the previous blog. It is too soon to be able to judge how she will shape Thames Water but she has made some interesting comments about the need 'to do what is right for these rivers.' That's different, as up until now it seems to have been all about what was right to make a profit at the expense of the environment.
As we enter what WASP now calls the untreated sewage season, basically any time we get a fair amount of rain, we are gearing up for an even more inquisitive approach(lockdowns permitting) to keep an eye on the overflows which we now know from Peter Hammond's research, to be dumping untreated sewage far more frequently and for much longer periods than even we thought possible.
The big untreated outfall at Witney has already spilled for one six-day period and on at least three more days on top just in October. In 2019 it dumped untreated sewage 76 times and for 1396 hours. That's over 58 days!
One big reason for long spills across the region is groundwater infiltration. The level of the groundwater rises predictably in winter and when this reaches a higher level than the various cracks and holes in the sewers, of which there are reported to be very many, due to damage and decay as well as faults, the water runs in and mixes with sewage creating a volume that the treatment works cannot handle. This can and does persist for months and spilling events deposit thousands, even millions of tonnes of sewage to our rivers. Small rivers like the Windrush Evenlode and Coln can be especially badly dumped upon as small flows meet big spills.
The Environment Agency has maintained for years that this is is illegal and it makes sense that spilling sewage just because a company does not want to fix up failed infrastructure or build a sewage works big enough to cope with it, instead using our rivers as a convenient dumping ground, is a criminal offence. However, it seems that Thames Water does not agree.
Unfortunately and inexplicably, the Agency has failed to enforce the law and the industry has saved billions as a consequence - we don't know why and can only speculate, and investigate. Anyway, now a very big investment is required to make to fix the problem which unfortunately has not been attacked in bitesize pieces over 30 years of private ownership, as was the idea. This is the fault of the industry, Environment Agency, Defra and Ofwat, not the public which of course is on the receiving end of environmental damage and the sort of disruption we saw last year at Standlake, Northmoor, Brize Norton and many more villages and towns. It has been a problem for years and it was never going to heal itself, was it?
Yes it's a bad idea to throw wet wipes down the toilet and it was a bad idea to allow companies to sell non-flushable wet wipes in the first place but many of the industry's environmental stewardship problems are self-inflicted by an unwillingness to spend money on essential repairs and upgrades. It was cheaper to pollute and it still is, despite the occasional fine, even a big one of £20 million in 2017 which was about 10 days profit, a fact that the Chair of the Environment Agency has finally woken up to.
Now the cat is out of the bag about the extent of pollution here in Oxfordshire and the same is being discovered all over the country. The water industry is, according to the Environment Agency, breaking the law but even now it seems reluctant (maybe because such offences are so common) to take legal action and pollution remains much more profitable than doing a proper job.
By the way, whenever you hear the industry and Agency (which seems to act as the water industry's PR office) say that they only release untreated sewage to stop it backing up into people's homes, take a closer look at the facts and you will realise that it really only happens because both bodies have allowed failed infrastructure to become the norm and for it to get worse with every housing development added to it.
Last year WASP reported several times the spilling at Witney which caused the Colwell brook to be full of sewage fungus as it flowed past Duck Lake and the popular footpaths for weeks turning to months. The Agency is 'investigating' but no one will explain what that means.
WASP has been engaged in this fight for about 4 years and now we have the welcome and invaluable support of our councils from County, District Towns and Parishes as well as other campaign and environmental groups. After all, who does think it is a good idea to dump untreated sewage in our rivers?
We are part of the Surfers Against Sewage Coalition for the petition soon to be delivered to Secretary of State George Eustice, hopefully by one of our youngest volunteers alongside the WWF and RSPB representatives, to name a few.
WASP is also part of Philip Dunne, MPs' team to submit a private members' bill for improved legislaton and application to end sewage pollution and we ask you to follow this link to write to your own MP using the tool to find your MP and the data for a letter. It writes it for you, so please take a few minutes to do it! Locally we are told that Witney MP Robert Courts cannot support the Bill because as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, he is part of the Government. It is therefore even more important that you send your letters of support for the Bill to him to get straight to a member of the government and let him know the strength of feeling here.
As we enter the winter and to follow on from our questions to the new Thames Water CEO, we have sent this letter to ask if it is true that Thames Water will actually make a legal challenge to continue extensive pollution as we have been told by their Sustainability Director.
If CEO Sarah Bentley is serious about doing what is right for rivers, this will be a breeze to answer convincingly and this time next year these blogs will be all about water industry successes, not abuses.