Water companies face growing complaints about sewage odours

Water companies around Britain are facing a rising tide of public complaints about odour pollution from their sewage treatment works. The protracted local controversies about some works have highlighted the mismatch between communities' desire for rapid solutions to odour problems and the industry's inflexible funding arrangements - as well as calling into question the quality of some companies' engineering work.

The groundswell of public complaint about odours from sewage works appears unprecedented, although its causes have not been systematically investigated.

Several sites have attracted particular attention over the past few years - including United Utilities' Sandon Dock works in Liverpool, Thames Water's Mogden works near Heathrow airport, South West Water's Cattedown works in Plymouth, and Scottish Water's Seafield works in Edinburgh. Odour problems at two of these sites appear to have been resolved - but they remain a burning issue at the other two.

The Mogden works is at the heart of a legal process which may determine whether new statutory controls are introduced to control sewage odours.

Last May, the High Court ruled that local authorities are entitled to use statutory nuisance legislation to curb odours from sewage works (ENDS Report 341, pp 55-56 ). The ruling was on an appeal by Hounslow council, which had served a notice on Thames Water in 2001 ordering it to abate the nuisance from the Mogden site. The notice was quashed by magistrates, who felt that sewage works were not "premises" subject to statutory nuisance law.

Thames Water has appealed against the High Court's decision, and the appeal is expected to be heard by the House of Lords towards the end of this year.

The length of this legal process has caused hold-ups elsewhere. In December, Thames Water was in court again arguing that its appeal against a notice from Bexley council ordering it to abate an odour nuisance at its giant Crossness works in south London should be postponed until the Mogden case is determined. The company's application was refused, and the delayed appeal hearing is expected this spring.

The Environment Department appears to be waiting for the House of Lords' verdict in the Mogden case before announcing the outcome of its December 2002 consultation on odour pollution from sewage works (ENDS Report 336, p 44 ).

Although new regulatory controls were mooted by the paper, DEFRA is understood to prefer a voluntary code of practice. Water companies and the Environment Agency felt that a voluntary code was unlikely to make for secure funding for odour abatement through the industry's periodic price review mechanism (ENDS Report 340, p 51 ), but DEFRA decided otherwise and has begun work on a code with the industry, the Agency and water regulator Ofwat.

Meanwhile, Thames Water remains in the firing line over the Mogden works, where a long-lived odour and mosquito nuisance prompted the formation of a residents action group in 2001. The group organised a petition which was signed by more than 3,000 people.

Thames Water says it has spent £6 million on odour abatement at Mogden over the past three years. But odour surveys at the works have shown that most of this investment has done very little to curb the nuisance. Public complaints were made about the site on 162 days in 2002, and the number showed little change last year.

Residents maintain that the nuisance will only end if major odour sources such as the inlet works and primary settlement tanks are covered. Thames Water finally conceded last November that this option, costing tens of millions of pounds, would have to be considered, and it has put in a funding bid to Ofwat. However, the work could not begin until April 2005, the start of the industry's next five-year investment round. The residents' group has complained that they face more "Third World summers" before the nuisance is abated.

In England, United Utilities appears to have much the biggest odour problems. Sewage works under complaint include plants at Meols in Birkenhead, Bromborough, Workington and Cheadle Heath, as well as the giant Davyhulme works in Manchester.

The problem in Bromborough began three years ago. A resident told a local newspaper last summer: "We can't open the windows or sit out in the garden, it keeps us prisoners in our own homes. On a hot day it makes you feel physically sick."

The nuisance prompted local Labour MP Ben Chapman to lead a delegation to DEFRA in October. He commented afterwards: "People should not be expected to put up with these intolerable smells in their homes or shopping areas. I am appalled at the length of time it is taking to rectify the problem and have to ask if the people operating the plant had to endure the smells near their homes whether United Utilities would have sought to address the problem with more urgency." The company is currently spending £0.2 million on refurbishing the works' biological filters and extractor fans.

In Workington, a Stop the Stench campaign obtained more than 1,600 signatures to a petition last year. The smell began when a new sewage works was built in 1994. Residents complain that United Utilities has fobbed them off with excuses ever since. Last October, the campaign says, the smell was "so bad that it is making some of the residents physically sick. It is invading the houses and there is no escape from it apart from to leave the village."

At Cheadle Heath, United Utilities completed a £10 million upgrade last year, including new odour controls. However, residents complained about an appalling odour nuisance last summer. A councillor for the Cheadle Heath ward commented: "Thousands of residents... have not been able to open their windows or sit in their gardens during the summer and it can't continue. It's quite clear that, despite assurances from United Utilities, the problem is not going away."

South West Water also operates several sewage works with odour problems. The worst of these, at Cattedown in Plymouth, appears to have been solved last year. But at the Camels Head works in the city, relief at the completion of a £2.5 million investment to combat another long-standing odour problem was short-lived. The smell returned within a fortnight, prompting complaints about the company from councillors.

The company with possibly the biggest odour liabilities on its hands is Scottish Water. It, too, is embroiled in legal action. It received a notice last September from Edinburgh council ordering it to abate the odour nuisance from its Seafield sewage works within six months. The company has lodged an appeal, arguing that it needs more time. Residents have complained about the smell for many years and believe that only covering the primary tanks will deal with the problem.

In October, an investigation by the Sunday Herald revealed that 28 of Scottish Water's sewage works had been under complaint about odours in the previous two years and were being pursued by local authorities or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Some of the problem works are new or recently refurbished. They include the Nigg works in Aberdeen, where the local authority is contemplating serving an abatement notice, the Ardoch works in Dumbarton, a works in Kirkcaldy completed in 2001, and one of Glasgow's wastewater treatment plants.

The problems have prompted two petitions to the Scottish Parliament. One of these, concerning the Kirkcaldy works, says that people were told that the plant would have no odour emissions. Smells from the works have left residents "nauseous, extremely stressed out and very angry", and with an "overwhelming feeling of despair" about local authorities' apparent inability to rectify the problem.

Several members of Parliament's Environment Committee, which is dealing with the petitions, said in November that they had experienced similar problems in their constituencies. Glasgow MSP Des McNulty said that Scottish Water recognised that it could achieve higher odour control standards, but "with the funding regime that it operates under the Water Industry Commissioner and the Scottish Executive's policy direction, it is not funded to achieve such standards."

Labour MSP Susan Deacon, whose constituency includes the Seafield works, pointed out that the first of the two petitions had been submitted in June 2002, and an unsatisfactory response from the Executive had followed early in 2003. Without faster progress, she warned, "people will start to lose faith in the Parliament's processes and powers to address an issue that affects thousands of people throughout Scotland."

The Committee has asked the Executive to address the issue in two forthcoming Bills on water services and planning and an impending consultation on Scottish Water's next funding round.

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