• Water Utilities Must Publish Pollution Plans or Risk Fines, says DEFRA


Water Utilities Must Publish Pollution Plans or Risk Fines, says DEFRA

Feb 25 2023

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is seeking new methods to tackle the illegal pollution of waterways by water and sewerage companies operating in the United Kingdom. In 2020, not a single river in the entirety of England and Wales qualified for ‘good overall health’ but by the end of 2022, DEFRA had yet to set water quality targets and the Department was having its budget cut. One of the rumoured plans was to replace day-to-day regulation – on the chopping block in a shrunken DEFRA – with harsher fines, but nothing concrete had been announced.  

That is, nntil this week, when the Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, suggested that water companies could face immediate fines for polluting rivers, lakes and the sea. The Environment Secretary has demanded an assessment and action plan from every water and sewerage company in England, with suppliers told to prioritise fixing spills in bathing waters and nature sites. Firms could be quickly fined up to £250 million rather than waiting for lengthy criminal prosecutions to conclude. 

Miss Coffey said: “People are concerned about the impacts of sewage entering our rivers and seas and I am crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable. I am making sure that regulators have the powers they need to take action when companies don’t follow the rules, including higher penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce. I am now demanding every company to come back to me with a clear plan for what they are doing on every storm overflow, prioritising those near sites where people swim and our most precious habitats.” 

Water companies have been informed that they will have just a few months to hand their action plans on river pollution over to DEFRA. A spokesman for Water UK, a trade association of all Britain’s water and wastewater firms, said: “Water companies wholeheartedly support the Government’s ambition and agree with the urgent need for action. The industry is already investing heavily to urgently tackle spills from storm overflows and increased monitoring is allowing them to target spending where it is needed most. The sector has also committed to spending a record £56 billion to replumb England in one of the largest infrastructure programmes ever. This includes removing every high-spilling overflow in England, and protecting areas used for bathing.” 

According to a report by The Telegraph last year, UK water companies were found to be releasing untreated sewage into waterways more than a thousand times every day. In 2020, there were over 3.1 million hours of effluent discharges into rivers and coastal areas in over 400,000 separate instances. While in 2021, fines exceeding £102 million were issued. These statistics underscore the urgency for DEFRA to implement new measures to combat the pollution of waterways by UK water and sewerage companies. 

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, previously cautioned that individuals who bathe or use waterways could suffer severe illnesses caused by the ingestion of human waste bacteria. The ingestion of coliforms found in human waste can lead to common symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. For elderly individuals and those with weakened immune systems, infections in the lungs, skin, eyes, nervous system, kidneys, or liver could be more serious. These risks could be further reduced if water companies improve their management of sewage and wastewater. 

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