Illegal waste activities, legitimate waste management and farming were to blame for over half of the 533 most serious incidents – those in categories 1 or 2.
A third of the increase on 2017 figures was due to dry weather, the EA states, which “can cause low water levels in rivers, lakes and ponds causing fish overcrowding and vulnerability to disease and predators”. It can also lead to more algal bloom incidents and greater surface run-off if drought is followed by heavy rainfall.
“There were over 50 serious pollution incidents between May and September that could be attributed to dry and hot weather-related conditions,” says the EA, compared to around 20 in the two preceding years.
However, dry weather may have contributed to a fall in incidents from dairy farming by reducing slurry leakage. “But the reduction in the number of registered dairy producers in England, down by over 500 from 2017, may also be a factor,” the report adds. “Over time the industry is changing, with fewer registered dairy farms that each have bigger herds. Inevitably this means increasing slurry storage capacity to prevent incidents.”
Overall, the farming sector saw an uptick in serious incidents of 13% – up to 77 last year, with two-thirds caused by “containment and control failures”.
Of all the 533 serious incidents last year, 40% were caused by containment and control failures. “This type of incident is preventable and indicative of poor environmental management controls operated by businesses,” says the EA.
Illegal waste activities caused the largest number of serious incidents last year, increasing on 2017 figures but still lower than in 2016. Half those incidents were related to illegal waste sites. The EA is discovering “almost the exact same number of new illegal waste sites as the number we close” – 896 new sites found last year compared to 912 shut down. “There is a lot of illegal activity around waste,” it states.
Legitimate waste management saw a 22% increase in pollution incidents, bringing the total last year to 79. Just two landfill sights alone were responsible for over 10% of that total.
Incidents caused by water companies increased by four, bringing the total last year to 56, with nearly three-quarters of the incidents being reported by the companies themselves.
Read the EA's full report here.