Pump hitches cost South West Water £24,000 fine

South West Water has been prosecuted over two sewage discharges in 2007 that threatened wildlife sites, recreational waters and shellfisheries. Both were caused by inadequate backup pumping provision.

The Environment Agency has brought two prosecutions against South West Water for sewage discharges at separate sites in Devon in recent weeks. Both discharges occurred where pumps were under repair and there was inadequate standby pumping capacity.

The first incident began on 4 July last year at a pumping station near Brixham. The company put contingency plans into operation after a pump failed, but sewage nevertheless overflowed into Oxen Cove two days later. It managed to stop the discharge the same day by fitting a replacement pump, but the Environment Agency told the Totnes magistrates on 7 August the terms of South West Water’s discharge consent required a backup pump to be available on site. It said the backup pump was under repair and other units had been sent to Gloucestershire to help with widespread flooding.

The discharge of raw sewage led to the precautionary closure of a shellfishery and the cancellation of recreational activities in Oxen Cove harbour. However, the Agency said neither the shellfishery nor bathing waters had in fact been affected because the discharge was diluted well.

South West Water pleaded guilty to causing sewage effluent to enter controlled waters under section 85 of the Water Resources Act 1991. The company was fined £10,000, with costs of £1,900.

The second court case related to an incident in August and September 2007 at Landkey pumping station near Barnstaple.Following a report of pollution, an Agency officer arrived to find screened sewage being discharged into the river Venn. A plume of murky water could be seen for 20 metres downstream of the emergency outflow.

The release was caused by problems with the site’s pumps, which reduced their flow rate. The company had fitted an additional diesel pump to alleviate the problem but the officer requested that the rate of the pumps be increased, which stopped the discharge within half an hour.

Six days later, the Agency again attended the pumping station, following further reports that it was overflowing. The officer found that both internal pumps had been removed for repairs. An external pump was struggling to cope with the load placed upon it, leading to further leaks of screened sewage.

The Venn is a high-quality salmon river that flows into the Taw Estuary, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and part of the North Devon Biosphere Reserve - the first site in the UK to be designated by UNESCO. The area is used for water sports and has a major fishery and shellfishery.

On 19 August, Barnstaple magistrates ordered South West Water to pay £10,000 with costs of £1,875 after it admitted two breaches of the section 85 of the 1991 Act.

Responding to the verdict, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: "Operators of pumping stations must have at least one standby pump available at all times to minimise the risk of illegal discharges. Where an external pump replaces the internal pumps, it is even more important it is up to the job and that a standby pump can take over should it break down."