The UK’s biggest water firms were prosecuted for 53 water pollution offences in 2007 - 35% fewer than in 2006 (see graph).
Total fines were half of those for 2006 and the lowest since ENDS started keeping records in 2003.
In some cases the improvement can be attributed to the water companies, but the environment agencies put most of the changes down to natural variation. They say their own policies on water pollution incidents have not changed.
United Utilities, Welsh Water and Yorkshire Water (see table) were the most frequently prosecuted companies.
United faced the highest fines - a total of £66,500 and £19,718 in costs - but these were half those paid by the company in 2006.
United’s largest fine in 2007 was for an incident in Wales which killed more than 23,000 fish (ENDS Report 393, p 62 ). The firm was acting as a contractor for Welsh Water in August 2006 when three tonnes of aluminium sulphate leaked from a storage tank at Pontsticill water treatment works near Merthyr Tydfil into the Taf Fechan. The firms were fined £13,000 each under the Water Resources Act 1991 plus another £3,500 each for breaching the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 and costs of £4,185.
Severn Trent had the biggest overall fine of the year. It was ordered to pay £34,000 and £7,000 in costs for repeatedly polluting the river Teme, Worcestershire, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (ENDS Report 393, p 62 ).
Thames Water showed the most improvement. In 2006 it had topped the tables with 14 prosecutions and more than £225,000 in fines and costs. But in 2007 it was prosecuted just once and fined £6,000 for breaching its discharge consent at Kings Sutton sewage works, Northamptonshire.
Both the Environment Agency and the Anglers’ Conservation Association attributed this improvement to Thames’s change of ownership. The company was sold by German energy giant RWE at the end of 2006 to a consortium led by the Australian bank Macquarie.
The ACA’s executive director Mark Lloyd praised Thames’s handling of a chemical leak from Beddington sewage works which killed thousands of fish in London’s river Wandle last September (ENDS Report 393, p 17 ). Thames was quick to accept responsibility for the incident and pledged to spend half a million pounds on restoring and improving the river.
Scottish Water also saw prosecutions fall. It was fined twice last year compared with 13 times in 2004 and 11 in 2005.
Commenting on these figures, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s head of environmental protection and improvement Allan Reid said: "Any number of things can affect how many prosecutions are taken forward in a given year… Annual fluctuations in the number of prosecutions are not unusual at all."
But one commentator suggested the low fines awarded to Scottish Water - just three of £10,000 or above in the past five years - may have demoralised SEPA’s staff and led to less rigorous investigations.
Members of the Blueprint for Water coalition have also accused the Environment Agency of reducing its investigation efforts, a charge the organisation denies.
The Agency’s own figures - calculated on a different basis to ENDS’s and running only to November 2007 - show a slight decline in convictions and fines since 2004 but not in the number of enforcement actions (a category that also includes official cautions and enforcement notices).
This might suggest a slight move away from prosecutions and towards issuing of cautions and notices, but the Agency is adamant it has not changed its policy.
"The Environment Agency policy on pollution incidents has remained consistent during this time - with the approach to enforcement action reflecting the relative severity of the incident," said a spokesman. "Depending on the severity of the incident we may bring a prosecution (with conviction leading to a fine), an official caution or an enforcement notice."
The courts have discretion over the size of fines. ENDS’s data show the average fine peaked at nearly £8,000 per offence in 2006. In 2007, it dropped to £5,784.
The end of the year saw South West Water appear in court on three occasions. The first case attracted a £7,000 fine with £3,500 in costs for the discharge of sewage effluent into the sea from a pumping station at Dawlish, south Devon.
The leak occurred in August 2006 during the bathing season. Red flags had to be put on the beach warning swimmers not to enter the water during the town’s annual carnival. South West had received two alarms from the Viaduct pumping station indicating the pumps were not working early the previous morning. It took 19 hours for an engineer to appear onsite.
Appearing before Totnes magistrates on 5 December, the firm pleaded guilty to breaching section 85 (3) of the Water Resources Act 1991.
A four million-litre sewage leak in August 2003 caused similar warnings to be posted on neighbouring beaches at Teignmouth over a bank holiday. The company was fined just £4,000 (ENDS Report 384, p 53 ).
South West was in court again eight days later, charged with allowing sewage to enter the river Yealm near Ivybridge, Devon, contrary to sections 85 (3) and (6) of the 1991 Act.
The leak, which occurred in March 2007, was from a manhole that had caused problems before. The Environment Agency had recommended moving the sewer overflow lower so it was beneath the manhole, but this was not done. Plymouth magistrates fined the firm £2,000 with £1,000 in costs.
The same court fined South West another £1,000 and £865 in costs on 21 December. The firm had pleaded guilty to breaching its discharge consent for Lydford sewage works on the edge of Dartmoor, contrary to section 85(6) of the 1991 Act.
The works discharges into a tributary of the river Lyd, an important salmon river used as a nursery for young fish, close to the Lydford Gorge, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.