Utilities firms under fire for sewage discharge practices

07 April 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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Water companies had discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England on over 400,000 occasions in 2020. Data also reveals that untreated waste was entering English waters for more than 3 million hours over the course of the year.

As reported by The Guardian, new figures from the Environment Agency (EA) show the scale of sewage discharges in England into rivers and seas has risen sharply. In 2019, raw sewage was discharged into rivers and the sea in 292,864, but in 2020 this rose by 37% to 403,171 occasions.

Human waste is a huge drain on the natural world – which is why countries are legally obliged to treat sewage before it is released into waterways. As solid material decays, it uses up oxygen, which is needed by the plants and animals living in the water, so the major aim of wastewater treatment is to remove as many suspended solids as possible before the remaining water is discharged back to the environment.

Total untreated sewage discharges into Englands rivers or coastal waters in 2020 - per firm

As a result, the European court of justice has ruled that discharges of untreated human waste are permitted only in exceptional circumstances, for example after extreme rainfall, to relieve pressure in the sewage system. However, the report from The Guardian found that untreated human effluent poured into rivers and seas for a total of 3.1 million hours last year – double the 1.5 million hours of 2019 – via storm overflow pipes which were supposedly only to be used in extreme weather.

The alarming figures are partly explained by the fact more monitoring of storm overflows by water companies has provided a clearer picture of the scale of the pollution. In 2020, monitoring was placed on 46% more storm overflows than the year before – and in those terms, the EA suggested that average spill numbers remained similar to last year. However, higher population and climate change mean they will discharge more often in the near future.

Sir James Bevan, the EA’s chief executive, said, “The Environment Agency is working actively with the water companies to ensure overflows are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped. Increased monitoring and reporting of storm overflows is part of the solution. It means everyone can see exactly what is happening, and will help drive the improvements and future investment that we all want to see, with £1.1bn of investment already planned for the next four years.”

Not all water companies saw the same level of spillages, however. The North West of England’s United Utilities made up around one-quarter of all spills over the last year, while Yorkshire Water saw the next most at more than 65,000 spillage events. According to a number of pressure groups, such companies should be paying for the damage caused by these leaks.

Hours of untreated sewage discharges into Englands rivers or coastal waters in 2020 - per firm

In a social media release, Hugo Tagholm, of Surfers Against Sewage, said, “Today’s sewage pollution figures are completely shocking… While the government is proposing new laws to be agreed for 2022, the sewage pollution crisis is here today and needs swift, decisive and enforced action. We will not allow government and water companies to just kick this issue into the long grass... What we need now is radical action.”

Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year, Environment Agency (EA) data has revealed. Untreated human effluent poured into rivers and seas for a total of 3.1m hours via storm overflow pipes that are supposed to be used only in extreme weather to relieve pressure in the sewage system.

According to a spokesperson for industry body Water UK, water companies will be investing £1.1 billion to improve storm overflows over the next five years as part of a wider programme of environmental improvements. Speaking to The Guardian, they insisted the industry was playing “a leading role” in the government’s storm overflow taskforce as it seeks long-term alternatives.

It is not the first time the water sector has come under pressure in recent years. At the start of 2019, the Consumer Council for Water, the watchdog for water consumers, revealed the number of people being put on to reduced rates for water bills, because they are struggling to pay, has risen by 50% in a year to almost 400,000. Furthering this, a report on poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation meanwhile found that arrears for bills for water are now the most common form of debt for the poorest families in Britain.

Consultants are working with water companies to find ways to improve their service and effectiveness, however. Recently, this saw Atkins partner with Thames Water as a strategic delivery partner, while CGI UK announced that Market Operator Services, England’s market operator for the non-household water retail market, had extended its contract for three years.