Water company pollution prosecutions soar

Prosecutions of water companies for pollution offences soared by 26% in 2004 to 87 and total fines rose by 35% to over £500,000, according to ENDS’ latest compilation of data from the environment agencies. Southern Water came top of the league for the second year running, notching up 14 offences, but Thames had the highest total of fines at £132,000.

Water and sewerage companies paid over £600,000 in fines and costs in 2004 following prosecutions for water pollution offences such as spills of sewage into streams and rivers or failure to meet discharge consent standards for effluents.

Compared with 2003 the figures are a considerable increase and provide further evidence that water companies’ environmental performance is deteriorating (see table).

An Ofwat report in October contained a warning from Environment Agency chief executive Baroness Young that water companies should check their maintenance programmes and management systems because the latest data showed that the number of pollution incidents was rising (ENDS Report 358, pp 3-4 ).

Water UK, the industry trade body, reacted angrily to any suggestion that the rise in prosecutions meant that companies needed to improve performance. "The water industry has an excellent record in meeting effluent consent standards," it countered in a statement. "The large scale of the business and this high level of compliance gives a perspective that a list of prosecutions cannot."

Water and sewerage companies are very exposed to the risk of causing water pollution, each having hundreds of sewage treatment works and pumping stations. However, the signs are that companies have taken their eye off the ball with only three water companies - Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent and Scottish Water - being prosecuted fewer times in 2004 than in 2003.

Southern Water, at the top of the league with 14 prosecutions, secured four more convictions than in 2003, making it the most polluting water company in Britain for the second year running.

Southern was fined £90,500 for the 14 offences - but the total has been reduced by £9,000 thanks to two appeals against pollution fines (ENDS Report 358, p 66 ). Its largest fine was £15,000 which it received after an oil spill at a drinking water treatment works threatened boreholes in Andover (ENDS Report 352, p 58 ). Although the fine was modest, the clean-up cost Southern more than £1.2 million.

Thames Water gained the year’s highest fine of £50,000 after being found guilty of twice polluting the river Thame with sewage. Sewage overflowed into the river from storm tanks at the company’s Aylesbury sewage works, killing 15,000 fish. Thames maintained it was a consented storm overflow, but the works was not operating at full capacity because of pump failures (ENDS Report 354, p 63 ).

Although it had rained before the time of the incident, the court decided that the discharge would have occurred anyway and storm sewage meant volumes above normal daily dry weather levels.

Anglian Water received a major fine in October when it was prosecuted for twice polluting the Great Ouse at Bedford following a sewer blockage. Some 250 fish were killed. The company was fined over £32,905 for the two offences (ENDS Report 357, p 55 ).

However, Anglian had a narrow escape when it was found not guilty of polluting a brook in Hertfordshire following discharges of effluent which contained activated sludge. The court disagreed with the Agency’s case that the discharge was not "treated sewage effluent" as specified in the sewage work’s consent.

Yorkshire Water had the biggest drop in performance over the year, appearing in court eight times during 2004 compared with none the previous year.

Welsh Water had the highest number of offences in any single court appearance, with seven offences following repeated pollution of the river Alyn, near Mold, after damage to a sewer. The company was charged with six counts of polluting the river, and one charge of failing to comply with a works notice issued by the Agency (ENDS Report 356, p 47 ).

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