Pollution fines for water firms back on the rise

The water industry was fined almost £600,000 for pollution offences in 2008, up almost half on 2007. Anglian Water accounted for a third of the total, following its near-record £178,973 penalty in October.

The UK water industry was ordered to pay £591,465 for pollution offences in 2008, a 47% rise on 2007 (see table). The total is the third largest since ENDS began compiling records in 2003.

Sixty one offences were successfully prosecuted, down on 2004’s high of 85, but up slightly on the low of 53 in 2007. The longer-term trend is for fewer offences and rising penalties (see figure, p 62).

Average combined fines and costs per offence reached £9,696, up by a quarter on 2007 and the second highest since 2003. The record of £10,659 was set in 2006, when large fines were imposed on Thames Water and United Utilities (ENDS Report 384, p 53 ).

Tony Warn, the Environment Agency’s policy manager for water quality, said these trends may show the courts are taking water company offences more seriously, but more time would be needed to reach firmer conclusions.

Mr Warn also said the Agency is happy with industry compliance, which is largely "close to maximum". Although "publicity and Ofwat are the main drivers" for improving compliance, higher fines "would be helpful".

Regulations implementing the environmental liability Directive will provide a further financial incentive to the industry when they are issued, he added. These are expected later this year.

South West Water, Welsh Water and Anglian Water were the most frequently prosecuted (see table). Anglian, South West and Thames Water received the year’s biggest total penalties.

Anglian Water had a calamitous year. It took the greatest hit from Agency prosecutions in 2008, being fined £173,000. With costs of £37,506, the total of £210,506 rivals Thames’ £226,126 record bill in 2006.

Anglian’s year began with 2008’s third-highest penalty of £18,250 for a sewage leak caused by a collapsed manhole cover (ENDS Report 398, pp 62-63 ). It was made to pay a total of £13,283 in September for two unrelated sewage discharges near Ely in the spring (ENDS Report 405, pp 53-54 ).

In October, the company received the third largest fine that the Agency has secured against a water company. Ipswich crown court ordered it to pay £178,973 for three offences at its Newmarket sewage treatment works in 2006 (ENDS Report 406, p 61 ).

That January, the Agency found ammonia levels in discharges from the works to be more than twice the permitted level. The site’s manager, who has since been dismissed, destroyed data and coerced colleagues to falsify records to hide further breaches. A major fish-kill from a sewage leak and further excessive ammonia levels followed later that year.

Anglian told ENDS: "Lessons have already been learned from the incidents, which took place in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and steps have been taken to reduce the risk of further occurrence."

At almost £66,000, South West Water’s total penalty was nearly twice that of 2007. It was prosecuted for 11 offences last year, up from eight in 2007. Most notable among these are the two £10,000 fines imposed in August for sewage discharges related to poor provision of standby pumps in 2007 (ENDS Report 404, p 51 ).

It was also made to pay a total of £22,200 for three separate cases in February for polluting the rivers Dart, Yealm and Truro. A fault at the Truro works caused storm sewage to overflow into the river, shutting a shellfishery for 12 days in June 2007.

Despite Welsh Water being prosecuted for nine offences last year, only one was for a major incident. This resulted in a bill of almost £9,000 for a raw sewage discharge that polluted two kilometres of a tributary of the river Clun in Pontypridd (ENDS Report 397, p 61 ).

Thames Water received the second-largest fine of £20,000 with £20,211 costs following prosecution in May after an ageing sewage pipe burst in July 2006, killing thousands of fish and crayfish at a National Trust site (ENDS Report 400, pp 60-61 ). Despite its total bill of £50,459 for the year, it marks a welcome decline from its average annual penalty of more than £180,000 between 2004 and 2006.

Fines for Scottish Water’s pollution offences have similarly fallen, from £50,000 in 2003 to £17,500 last year, though this is £2,500 more than 2007. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) welcomed improvements in the firm’s compliance with effluent treatment standards, but remains concerned about its number of sewage discharges.

SEPA denied that the low fines imposed on Scottish Water, which have not exceeded £10,000 since August 2003, have demoralised Agency staff and led to less rigorous investigations, a charge levelled at it last year (ENDS Report 396, pp 56-57 ). A SEPA spokeswoman said that in line with the ‘better regulation’ agenda, it "will take the least formal action necessary to secure compliance, unless there is a presumption to seek prosecution".

Last year also saw Northern Ireland’s first water prosecution. In February, Northern Ireland Water was fined £100, with £211 costs, for polluting the river Lagan with sewage (ENDS Report 398, p 61 ). The incident occurred just hours after the former Water Service lost its crown immunity on 1 April 2007.

The company blamed under-investment in the province’s water infrastructure (ENDS Report 401, pp 38-42 ). Antrim magistrates later imposed a penalty of £5,201 for a sewage discharge that happened on the same day; a punishment more in line with those elsewhere in the UK (ENDS Report 400, pp 60-61 ).

Wessex Water and United Utilities share the honour of being the most improved, cutting prosecutions by two thirds from 2007. But United Utilities’ three trips to court for sewage discharges were by no means trivial, resulting in a total penalty of £25,540.

Noting a general rise in average penalties, Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the newly formed Angling Trust, said the courts were becoming more serious about water companies’ environmental offences. But he questioned whether the Agency is taking a tough enough line, noting that "a lot of pollution is going on that is not recorded" as river-borne pollution can be washed away before inspectors arrive.

Both Wessex Water (ENDS Report 401, p 66 ) and Portsmouth Water were fined only once last year. Portsmouth’s discharge of a water treatment chemical into the river Itchen was the first criminal blot on its copybook (ENDS Report 396, p 59 ).

Veolia Water Outsourcing, an industry contractor, was fined in February for a major sewage spill that closed beaches along the Forth estuary in 2007 (ENDS Report 398, p 62 ). It was fined again in July after South West Water’s maintenance contractor Engenica failed to attend to a pump failure in August 2006 for 19 hours. The company was later acquired by Veolia. The failure allowed 500 tonnes of sewage effluent to pollute bathing water off Dawlish in Devon (ENDS Report 403, p 64 ).

Severn Trent was the fourth most heavily fined water company last year. Its largest penalty, of £18,000, concerned the killing of 18,000 fish in a Leicestershire river designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation (ENDS Report 405, p 53-54 ).

The company also received the last fine of the year on 18 December. It pleaded guilty to discharging sewage from Milnhay sewage works near Nottingham into the river Erewash in October 2007. Pump problems allowed untreated storm sewage to enter the tributary of the river Trent, destroying the fish population downstream of the works. It was fined £10,000 with £1,212 costs.

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