Water firms in the dock for more pollution offences

United Utilities was fined £19,000 in November for pollution incidents which resulted in two north-west streams running with sewage. Southern Water has been prosecuted three times in recent months, chalking up fines of £18,000, while Yorkshire, Northumbrian and Scottish Water have also been in court.

  • United Utilities appeared in court twice in November to answer two charges of causing sewage to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(3) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

    The first offence occurred in March this year when the Environment Agency received reports of a sewage discharge to the river Wyre near Garstang in Lancashire. It transpired that the source was the Scorton sewage pumping station.

    The company appeared before Lancaster magistrates on 29 November. The court heard that an alarm was triggered which showed that one of the work's two pumps had tripped out. Instead of sending someone to reset the pump, the company ignored the fault, relying on the second pump which then failed due to an electrical problem. Sewage levels built up and overflowed into the river via a manhole.

    United pleaded guilty to polluting the river and was fined £7,000 with costs of £1,025.

    The day after receiving the fine, the company was in court again in connection with pollution of a brook in Droylsden, Greater Manchester, last April. Tameside magistrates heard that there was a discharge from the company's Lumb Lane pumping station after the pumps became clogged with sewage debris.

    An Agency officer noticed that the brook was running blue and analyses showed high levels of ammonia, suspended solids and biochemical oxygen demand.

    The discharge resulted from an overflow of backed-up sewage from the work's inlet. The company explained that the pumps had continued to run, albeit slowly, so an alarm did not operate to highlight the problem. The Agency argued that the site should have had a second alarm system to warn of overflows to the river.

    United was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,201.

    The two offences bring United's total for the year to nine, four of which were due to breaches of abstraction licence conditions (ENDS Report 368, p 40 ).

  • Southern Water has been fined three times for sewage pollution in recent months. The cases bring the company's prosecution total for 2005 to six.

    Sevenoaks magistrates fined the company £7,000 on 17 November after it bungled its response to public complaints about sewage leaks on the Isle of Sheppey.

    The court heard that Southern had answered two separate complaints from businesses about sewage leaks near Leysdown Road in November 2004 by saying there was no sewer in the area. In fact, it was a mistake and the main sewer ran close by. Leaks along a kilometre of the pipe were causing offensive smells and pollution of a pond and dyke.

    The company admitted causing sewage to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(3) of the 1991 Act. It was fined and ordered to pay costs of £1,300.

    Southern was also ordered to pay over £6,000 in fines and costs on 9 September after its Allington pumping station discharged raw sewage into the river Medway.

    The company told the Agency that the discharge followed an electrical storm that caused the pumps to stop operating. An employee on site was unable to stop the discharge and it took five-and-a-half hours for an electrician to arrive and discover that a circuit breaker had cut out during the storm.

    The discharge raised ammonia levels in the river to six times above the level lethal to fish. Before Sittingbourne magistrates, Southern pleaded guilty to breaching a condition of its discharge consent, contrary to section 85(6) of the Water Resources Act 1991, and was fined £5,000 with £1,304 costs.

    Southern's final fine was for £5,000 on 15 September after it polluted the Ferring Rife watercourse near Worthing. Four kilometres of the stream were polluted when a blockage caused sewage to back up and overflow from an inspection hatch which maintenance workers had failed to secure a year before. The company was ordered to pay costs of £1,320.

  • Yorkshire Water was fined £6,000 on 23 November for polluting the river Calder with sewage. Halifax magistrates heard that an Environment Agency officer visiting the company's Eastwood sewage works at Todmorden in March this year noticed a discharge of crude sewage.

    An investigation revealed a series of failures behind the incident. The discharge at the unmanned site was the result of pump failures, and a back-up system which should have restarted the pumps did not work because a fuse had blown.

    The company's control room should have been alerted by an alarm showing that the pumps had stopped but this also failed to work. An alarm indicating high sewage levels did operate, although staff in the control room failed to respond because they believed the problem could be addressed during a maintenance visit that afternoon.

    In fact, the pumps had been discharging since 9.30 that morning. The discharge was discovered by the Agency at 12.40 and did not stop until 15.20.

    Yorkshire Water was fined £6,000 and ordered to pay the prosecution costs of £895. It was the company's first prosecution this year.

  • Northumbrian Water was fined £12,000 after admitting to polluting the river Gaunless with sewage and killing 1,000 fish. On 16 November Bishop Auckland magistrates heard the company admit to one offence of causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(1) of the 1991 Act, and ask for two other offences to be taken into consideration.

    The Agency said it was alerted to dead fish in the river by a member of the public in June 2004. It estimated that 500 trout and 500 coarse fish had been killed by repeated raw sewage discharges from a combined sewer overflow in dry weather conditions.

    Northumbrian explained the discharges were due to corrosion of a piece of equipment that it believed to be reliable because it was made of stainless steel. It has since replaced all similar items in its sewerage network.

    The company was fined and ordered to pay the Agency's costs of £1,863. It was the company's seventh pollution prosecution and fourth court appearance in 2005.

  • Scottish Water was fined £1,000 after a blocked sewer caused pollution of the Contullich burn at Alness, Highland region. On 26 September, Tain sheriff court heard how a Scottish Environment Protection Agency officer noticed a combined sewer overflow discharging into the burn, littering the stream with sewage debris. The weather at the time was dry and the overflow was consented to operate only during storm conditions.

    Scottish Water said the discharge was due to a blockage downstream which was duly removed. However, SEPA had been concerned about the overflow and asked the company to fit screens to catch litter. The location is used by children as a playground.

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