The water industry is under pressure to find ways of removing oestrogens from sewage effluent - mainly natural compounds which come from human waste and ethinyl oestradiol, a synthetic oestrogen found in the contraceptive pill. A large body of research has shown that they feminise male fish and disrupt reproduction in wild populations (ENDS Report 327, pp 24-28 ).
Last September, companies set out their draft business plans for the fourth asset management planning period (AMP4) running from 2005-10. One element inserted at the Agency's behest was a substantial research and demonstration programme on oestrogens in sewage, rumoured to be costed at some £100 million.
The programme was to include trials of removal technologies such as granular activated carbon (GAC) and ozone treatment at up to ten sites, although this has now been slimmed down to only two. The latest plans were for them to be carried out at Thames and Severn Trent sewage works.
The plans were supported by the Secretary of State in her principal guidance to the industry's economic regulator Ofwat in March (ENDS Report 350, pp 46-47 ). Companies have included them in their final business plans submitted to Ofwat in May (see pp 38-39 ).
The water industry believes that GAC and ozone treatment are the only technologies likely to give the 95% reduction in oestrogen levels which research suggests is required to protect fish in rivers where there is little dilution of effluents.
Both technologies, which are normally only used in drinking water treatment, are highly energy intensive and expensive to operate.
Scepticism about the value of the programme is, however, widespread, as revealed at a specialist conference on oestrogens in sewage barely a week after the final business plans were submitted. The conference, at Cranfield University, was organised by the Sensors for Water Interest Group (SWIG).
"Ofwat support for major investment on this topic appears unlikely unless there's unequivocal statutory need," said Thames Water principal scientist Howard Brett, expressing doubts about whether the trials would go ahead.
GAC has "enormous capital and operating costs" and very high greenhouse gas emissions, he said, asking: "Is the cure more damaging than the symptom?"
GAC would remove all dissolved organic matter in the effluent along with oestrogens, meaning it would quickly become ineffective and need to be renewed - especially if the works was not operating efficiently. Potential operating costs are £1 million per year, according to Mr Brett, while start-up costs would be over £10 million for the largest plants.
Outside the conference, other industry figures have expressed doubts that Ofwat will approve the trials, especially given the pressure on the regulator to cut spending during AMP4. Current plans will lead to an average 29% increase in water bills.
"I don't think [the trials] will go ahead," says Dr Issy Caffoor of Yorkshire Water. "It's a waste of money for little or no environmental benefit."
Other industry insiders in regular contact with Ofwat also believe there is little chance that the trials will get financed, although they would not speak on the record.
But failing to press ahead with the trials may be foolhardy. The EU water framework Directive requires waters to achieve "good ecological status" by 2015. Evidence of feminisation and reproductive disruption in fish may well be considered to be incompatible with good status.
However, industry scepticism does not stretch to the monitoring part of the programme. Ofwat is expected to approve monitoring studies at all ten water and sewage companies, at a total cost of around £4 million.
Monitoring methods will be a key issue. The Agency is discussing targets for total oestrogens of one nanogram per litre. This means that any measuring technique will have to be capable of detecting 0.1ng/l, a level that is "incredibly challenging", according to Terry Long, the Agency's self-monitoring policy advisor. Such levels of accuracy can only currently be achieved in laboratories at a cost of about £100 a time, and still leave significant uncertainties.
The Agency sees non-competitive immuno-assays - like those being developed by Professor Colin Self of Newcastle University - as a likely solution to monitoring problems, says Mr Long. The Agency hopes to develop such assays within 18 months, which could then be used in dipstick form to measure oestrogens, Mr Long adds. He hopes that these will bring costs down to about £10 per sample.
"We need a radical approach and this looks like it might be it," he says. "The trouble is the Agency might not be able to finance its development." The Agency is looking to the Department of Trade and Industry and water companies for funding.
DEFRA is also considering plans for a major research initiative which will look at the ecological impacts of removing oestrogens - and other trace organics - from discharges. Half a dozen research establishments would be involved in a study of impacts on fish and invertebrate communities.
One prominent scientist confided that he thought the water industry was running scared about what the project might find. There has never been any systematic research into the impacts of sewage discharges on river ecosystems. He considers that there is a high probability of finding sub-lethal effects on wildlife populations caused by myriad trace organic substances in effluents. These would include not only reproductive disturbance, but also behavioural, immune system or other endocrine changes.
The UK has also led the field in understanding the oestrogenic impacts of sewage, and the Government and industry will be aware that any monitoring methods and technologies developed could be profitably exported.