DoE passes the buck over delays in sewage clean-up

Two controversial official decisions on the implementation of EC water Directives may have exposed the UK to a risk of further legal action before the European Court of Justice. One is the deferral of four sewerage schemes in Devon and Cornwall which the National Rivers Authority (NRA) believes to be essential to comply with the 1976 Directive on bathing water quality. The second, the reclassification of the Humber estuary as a coastal water under the 1991 Directive on urban waste water treatment, is an attempt to allow Yorkshire Water to avoid anything more than primary treatment of sewage from Hull.

The surprise decision to delay sewerage schemes for Torbay, Dartmouth, Megavissey and Falmouth was first reported in July. South West Water had been planning a £70 million investment over two years to collect and treat raw sewage discharges which are affecting compliance with the EC Directive on bathing water quality at 20 designated beaches. The postponement means that the cost can be spread over ten years, helping to reduce water bills in politically sensitive south-western England - the area with the highest average water charges in the country.

Although the Department of the Environment (DoE) declined to confirm the story at the time, South West Water has since said that its "K factor" - the amount by which the water industry regulator Ofwat is allowing it to raise prices over the next ten years - was based on the assumption that the schemes will be delayed.

The DoE argues that the 20 bathing waters in question already comply with EC bathing water standards. Sewage treatment is therefore needed only to comply with the 1991 Directive on urban wastewater treatment - the implementation timetable for which allows a delay of up to ten years on South West Water's original plans.

The decision has prompted a furious reaction from local authorities. South Hams District Council believes that continuing discharges of untreated sewage to the river Dart will blight Dartmouth for a further ten years. A local sewage embargo will halt plans to replace or renovate hundreds of houses and plans to build a relief road and industrial estate, all of which were intended to boost employment.

Meanwhile, Carrick District Council says that delays to the Falmouth sewerage scheme will delay 260 new homes, representing a loss to the building industry alone of £9 million. And councils in all of the affected areas are concerned that crude sewage discharges will damage the vital tourist industry.

The NRA claims that it was not consulted about the decisions. A spokeswoman told ENDS in July that compliance with the bathing water Directive at all of the affected beaches was "very borderline", with failures being highly likely in future years.

The prediction was borne out this summer. Two of the 15 beaches affected by Torbay's discharges - Paignton Sands and Broadsands - failed bacteriological standards this year, adding to five failures since 1986. And all five beaches affected by the other three schemes have also failed the EC bacteriological limits since 1986.

The two parties most closely involved in the decision are now busy passing the buck. In a recent letter to a firm of Devon solicitors, the DoE said that its advice to Ofwat on the four schemes simply "represented the opinion of Ministers", and "did not purport to derogate from any legal requirement on any relevant body."

A DoE spokesman added that Ofwat's Director General, Ian Byatt, was free to make any assumptions he saw fit when deciding water companies' K factors. However, an Ofwat spokeswoman told ENDS that the DoE's advice had been treated as an instruction. The NRA's Chief Executive, Ed Gallagher, is also understood to have received a letter from the DoE stating that Ministers' decision was, in fact, a "decision".

The controversy may yet have serious implications for the Government. Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK had breached the Directive on bathing water by missing the 1985 compliance deadline (ENDS Report 222, p 47 ).

The Government has since continued to insist that the UK will achieve almost full compliance by 1995. But the latest bathing water quality figures suggest that this is now unlikely (ENDS Report 238, p 24 ). Friends of the Earth, which made the original complaint to the European Commission that brought the UK before the European Court last year, says it is planning a further complaint based on these figures. The postponement of the four schemes in the south-west will add further fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, the Government has taken another contentious decision about sewage discharges to the Humber. The DoE has redefined the area downstream of the Humber Bridge as a coastal water, enabling it to qualify as a "high natural dispersion area" under the Directive on urban waste water treatment. The designation - a "less sensitive area" in EC parlance - allows minimal standards of sewage treatment, including only primary treatment for agglomerations with a population equivalent of up to 150,000 people.

The Humber designation is intended to allow Yorkshire Water to provide only primary treatment for Hull's currently untreated discharges, even though the city has a population of about 250,000. This is permissible in "exceptional circumstances" under Article 8(5) of the Directive, which allows primary treatment for discharges to a less sensitive area from an agglomeration of more than 150,000 people provided "it can be demonstrated that more advanced treatment will not produce any environmental benefits." Annex II of the Directive also requires that, when designating less sensitive areas, Member States must take into account the risk of discharges having detrimental effects in adjacent areas.

Whether these conditions are met in the Humber is open to serious doubt. The head of the estuary suffers from severe oxygen depletion in summer due mainly to excessive organic loads from the rivers Aire and Ouse. However, Yorkshire NRA told ENDS last year that it also expected the then planned reductions in the organic load from Hull's sewage to contribute to improvements in water quality in this part of the estuary (ENDS Report 226, pp 7-8 ).

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