MPs call for higher sewage treatment standards

Higher standards of sewage treatment and tighter controls on sewage sludge spreading on land have been recommended by the House of Commons Environment Committee.1 Its report is well timed to bolster the case for higher environmental spending as negotiations on the next "AMP3" round of water industry prices get under way. But the Committee's belief that the improvements can be achieved by 2002 without rises in water bills is highly controversial.

The Committee's inquiry was conducted against the backdrop of the AMP3 negotiations between water companies and their regulators. Economic regulator Ofwat fired the opening shot by proposing a one-off price cut in 2000 and no increases above inflation for the subsequent five years of the AMP3 period - a move which the Environment Agency criticised as pre-empting consideration of the environmental obligations facing the industry (ENDS Report 273, pp 29-30 ).

The Committee backs the Agency's view that many customers want higher environmental standards rather than price cuts. It concludes: "We do not believe that...Ofwat should be seeking real-term cuts in sewerage charges at the next review."

The report's main recommendations are that all sewage effluents should receive tertiary treatment to reduce "nutrients as well as pathogens" - requirements which exceed those of the 1991 EC Directive on urban wastewater treatment. Secondly, all sewage sludge spread on agricultural land should be pasteurised to reduce pathogen levels. And thirdly, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) should be designed to operate only once in 20 years. All three recommendations come with a target date of 2002 - a demanding timetable, to put it mildly.

The Committee did not explore in any detail the likely costs of its recommendations. The report simply asserts that they "can be afforded without raising prices."

The Committee's conclusions on costs and timing have not gone unchallenged. The Water Services Association said that the cost implications would "be enormous and inevitably involve price increases to the customer". It felt that the report did not "fully reflect the complexity of the issues" and that some of its recommendations were "neither properly costed, prioritised nor...necessary or practicable".

Nevertheless, the report will be important in influencing the tone of the AMP3 process, and particularly Ofwat's role in it. Committee Chairman Andrew Bennett says "water companies got a very soft time from the regulator [during AMP2] and there is no reason why they shouldn't come up with all the goods this time round."

Indeed, Ofwat is panned for choosing to interpret its duty to customers "only as protecting their pockets" and neglecting its statutory environmental duties. In doing so, the Committee suspects, Ofwat's aim has been to protect itself from blame for price increases.

In making its recommendations, the Committee was impressed by the progress made by some companies in installing tertiary sewage treatment. It mentions Welsh, Wessex and Yorkshire Water's commitments to ultra-violet disinfection or microfiltration of coastal sewage discharges, and notes that Severn Trent and South West Water have also installed tertiary treatment of some kind at some works.

A recent parliamentary answer revealed that 35 discharges now receive UV treatment. Top of the list is Welsh Water (13), followed by South West (10), Anglian (6) and North West and Southern (both 3).2

  • Bathing waters: The Committee recommended in 1990 that all sewage discharges to coasts and estuaries should receive full treatment and disinfection (ENDS Report 186, pp 27-29). The present report extends the recommendation to freshwaters.

    Successive Governments have not designated any inland bathing waters under the 1976 EC Directive on bathing water quality, although many have been identified by other Member States. The report notes evidence from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that microbial indicator organisms may survive for long periods in river sediments and be resuspended during times of high flow. River contamination is also likely to affect water quality at bathing beaches. The report concludes that discharges to freshwaters should be controlled for the sake of recreational river users as well as bathers downstream.

    The Committee is critical of the Government's "sadly minimalistic" interpretation of the 1976 Directive. "Bathing" is interpreted only as "swimming", it notes, and protection is not extended to other recreational uses such as sailing and surfing. The report also attacks the concept of a limited bathing season between May and September, since many recreational uses extend for much of the year.

    The Committee considered that the widespread practice of turning off UV disinfection systems outside the bathing season was "totally unacceptable", Mr Bennett told journalists. The report notes evidence from the Public Health Laboratory Service that pathogens, particularly viruses, can survive in the environment for long periods. The part-time operation of disinfection plants "could not be considered to provide any safeguard for public health," it concludes.

    The Committee quotes the results of an opinion poll released by the Environment Agency last December, which showed that 95% of respondents wanted a higher level of sewage treatment. The same proportion preferred higher environmental standards with no reduction in water and sewerage bills to no improvement in standards and lower bills.

    Some 52% of respondents believed that the Government should make a national contribution to the costs of problems in specific areas. Only 39% felt that local residents should pay.

    The report urges the Government to "take note of public opinion on this point" - a recommendation likely to offer some comfort to residents in south-west England, who pay the highest water bills in the country due to an extensive programme to bring coastal discharges up to EC standards and the large summer influx of tourists to the region.

  • Shellfisheries: Environment Minister Michael Meacher gave evidence that sewage disinfection is run continuously in shellfish growing areas, but this was greeted with some disbelief by the Committee. It found that shellfish producers had not been adequately consulted by the Environment Agency on sewage discharge consents which affected the quality of shellfish waters.

  • High Natural Dispersion Areas: The Directive on urban wastewater treatment allows only primary treatment of sewage discharges in High Natural Dispersion Areas (HNDAs), subject to studies demonstrating no adverse effects on the environment. The report notes that the UK and Portugal are the only Member States to take advantage of the derogation.

    The Committee concurs with a local pressure group, the Seaham Environmental Association, which described HNDAs as "a device...to enable privatised water companies to avoid spending on proper, effective treatment." Mr Meacher told the Committee that the number of HNDAs "will be reduced somewhat" by an ongoing review. But the Committee wants them to be "immediately abandoned".

  • Sludge disposal to land: Spreading on farmland is the preferred option for the steadily growing arisings of sewage sludge in many areas. The practice is creating rising sensitivities. Several major retailers are considering imposing restrictions on growers to reduce risks from pathogens and other contaminants in the food chain (ENDS Report 275, p 27 ).

    The Committee notes that sludge treatment standards between companies are "very diverse". Mr Bennett singled out Anglian Water's practices as "not as good as they might be". The report cites evidence from local groups that 70% of the sludge spread by the company on farmland is untreated. By contrast, 95% of the sludge spread by Severn Trent Water is treated by anaerobic digestion.

    Anglian Water was strongly criticised for the sludge lagoons which are appearing in Lincolnshire and Norfolk as a result of its policy of persuading farmers to store sludge on their land. Two local authorities told the inquiry that they were unable to respond to public complaints about smells and risk to health because of inadequate legislative controls.

    Mr Meacher told the Committee that the Government does not intend to ban the use of untreated sludge on land "in the absence of further evidence." Disposal of wastes to land is under review and the results are expected during 1998.

    The report concludes that "there is almost universal opposition to the use of untreated sludge" on farmland. It recommends "stabilisation and pasteurisation" as a statutory minimum, and suggests that the Agency develops a system for monitoring "environmentally sustainable sludge application".

  • Sewerage systems: The Committee is concerned at the replacement rate for sewer systems, which was put at less than 1% since 1991 by one witness. Ofwat reported a 38% increase in renovation of critical sewers between 1995/96 and 1996/97, but the Committee did not find this satisfactory.

    The Committee also took issue with Ministerial assurances that CSOs are "a fairly well-contained problem". Pressure group Water Watch told the inquiry that 35% of CSOs are regarded as "poor" and tend to operate in dry weather when flows are insufficient to provide adequate dilution of raw sewage. Such discharges contribute to failures of bathing water standards and to sewage debris in watercourses and on beaches.

    In recommending that overflows operate only once every 20 years, the Committee was mindful of evidence that there are over 7,000 unsatisfactory CSOs and that a five-year plan to upgrade them would deal with only the worst 20%.

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