Worcester incident revives concern over drinking water safeguards

The most serious chemical contamination of a public water supply in Britain for ten years has raised major questions about the role of water companies in controlling potentially polluting industrial discharges to sewer and the safeguards they operate at water treatment works. The incident has also provided a forceful reminder that key recommendations in an official report on a major pollution incident on the river Dee in 1984 have not been implemented - and put the spotlight on the Drinking Water Inspectorate's arm's length approach to regulation.

The incident began in the early morning of Friday 15 April, when Severn Trent Water began receiving complaints from consumers served by its Barbourne water treatment works in Worcester about the taste and smell of their tapwater. The works, which abstracts from the Severn, was closed at 9.55, and the company issued warnings not to consume the water via loudspeaker vans, radio and a letter drop. Alternative water supplies were provided by road tankers.

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