The firms are only allowed to discharge raw sewage into rivers and seas if there has been exceptionally heavy rain and only if the company in question has already treated a specified volume of water, but the Panorama team found that many were discharging frequently and for long periods of time without any of these conditions being met.
Of 10 companies investigated by Panorama, seven had treatment works that were breaching their permits. Welsh Water was found to be one of the worst offenders with its Aberbaiden plant illegally dumping sewage into the protected river Usk for 12 consecutive days in December.
Much of the dumping goes unreported, despite the sector being obliged to report their combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharges, known as event duration monitoring, to the Environment Agency. In 2020, the sector told the agency it dumped sewage into England’s waters 400,000 times, up from 200,000 the previous year, for a total of 3.1 million hours. Though the actual figures will be much higher.
In October 2019, Ofwat levied a £126m penalty on Southern Water for “deliberately misreporting” the performance of its sewage treatment works. Between February and March last year, the Environment Agency deemed a 55-day-long series of pollution events to be just one incident and therefore to be just one breach of permit, sparking outrage amongst the local rivers group.
Green groups, anglers and water users have been trying to raise the issue for years, while the Environment Agency, which has a duty to protect rivers and regulate the water sector, has appeared to lag far behind the problem, in part due to dwindling resources and in part, according to critics, due to poor leadership and a lack of political will to solve the problem, which will require hefty investment from the water companies and a likely hike in water bills.
For its part, DEFRA says it has required all water companies – including Thames Water and Yorkshire Water, mentioned in the programme – to invest to upsize waste water treatment works and/or storm tanks where they are not meeting or are close to not meeting permit requirements.
There are 150 schemes to increase flows to treatment, 385 schemes to increase storm tank size and 3375 schemes to install new monitors, it said. There are also 1,107 flow investigations currently underway to inform future investment, if required.
The flow upgrades and monitoring installations will cost around £800 million from 2020-2025, with an estimated further £200 million from 2025-2030 informed by the outcome of the investigations. These upgrades are part of a wider programme of storm overflow improvements over the next 5-year business planning period (2020-2025) at a cost of around £1.1 billion.
The Environment Agency declined to be interviewed for the programme but environment minister Rebecca Pow appeared, declaring that the government was already getting tough with the water sector.
A joint government and water sector promise in January to end the damage caused by untreated sewage being pumped into rivers and seas was cautiously welcomed by some green groups, but was labelled “meaningless smokescreen” by others, with DEFRA accused of “refusing to confront” the core of the problem. At the end of March, the department said it would create a legal obligation for the government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows. It must also report to parliament on its progress in implementing the plan and water companies must publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis.
But rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey said it has become “self-evident that not only parliament is being misled, but ministers are being misled and the Environment Agency has become an unaccountable shambles.
“It’s now time for the prime minister to live up to his environmental commitments and put a stop to our rivers being used as nothing more than an abused, undervalued extension of the sewage system.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Water companies have a legal duty to avoid pollution and must act quickly to reduce any damage that happens as a result of their activities.
“The regulations are clear and are enforced robustly. Over the last six years the Environment Agency has brought 48 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £35 million.
“Our evidence shows that water quality is affected by pollution from roads and farmland as well as from wastewater treatment and drainage. It will take time, money and the combined effort of government, industry, businesses and civil society to see real change. We are glad to see some of this work already happening through the Storm Overflows Taskforce.”
In a statement, Welsh Water said that while its CSOs are “mainly operating as designed and permitted, we recognise that with environmental legislation tightening and customer expectations changing, more needs to be done,” although it would take “significant additional funding and will take many years to deliver”.
“We have invested £8.1 million in improving the monitoring of the CSOs since 2015, and now have spill monitors on 96.7% of all of our CSOs – more than any other water company… As our profits don’t go to shareholders but instead are reinvested to improve our services, over the past 20 years we have invested over £1billion in our entire wastewater network.
“We know however that there is still further work to be undertaken and that is why we are investing £765 million between now and 2025 on further improvements to our wastewater system. This includes around £60 million programme agreed with Natural Resources Wales to tackle priority CSOs.”
A spokesperson for WaterUK, which represents the industry, said that water companies are investing £5 billion on environmental improvements, including £1.1bn to “improve, and increase monitoring of, storm overflows, investment in wastewater treatment works and the use of natural alternatives and the latest technology to keep sewage out of rivers and take pressure off wastewater networks”.
The UK remains in breach of EU wastewater law after polluting a beach with raw sewage for more than 20 years.