Water firm faces sentencing for 51 sewage pollution offences

Southern Water is in court today at the start of a four-day sentencing hearing for breaching its environmental permits 51 times over a five-year period, leading to more than 8,000 pollution incidents at wastewater plants in north Kent and the Solent.

The Environment Agency issued proceedings against Southern Water in February 2020, telling Maidstone Crown Court that there had been 8,400 unlawful and non-compliant incidents of sewage "escaping" Southern Water plants at 17 sites in Whitstable, the Swale, Sittingbourne, Herne Bay and the Isle of Sheppey, “4,000 of which had lasted for more than an hour”.

The following month, the firm pleaded guilty to 46 counts of contravening the requirements of an environmental permit and five counts of causing poisonous/noxious/polluting matter/waste to enter controlled waters.

Sewage pollution: The 9 EA prosecutions underway

At the time, Southern Water’s chief executive Ian McAulay apologised to the court: “We accept that in the past Southern Water let down customers and the wider community. We are truly sorry this happened and I have been working with a new team to build an ethical working culture that ensures we do the right thing for customers and for the environment.”

Southern Water has frequently been in trouble with the water regulators. In June 2020, it received the sector’s largest penalty for an environmental infringement when Ofwat made it pay £126m back to customers as backdated performance-related penalties. The company was found to have “deliberately misreported” the performance of a wastewater plant by manipulating sampling procedures. It also found that underinvestment in infrastructure had led to sewage spills and equipment failure.

The firm has also been responsible for a raft of smaller pollution incidents recently, including raw sewage spilling onto Ryde beachfront, into Chichester Harbour and onto beaches in Thanet, and it has been criticised for its handling of ongoing pollution in a site of special scientific interest in Southampton.

Southern Water will appear at Canterbury Crown Court today for the first day of its sentencing hearing, which will conclude on Friday. A record fine is expected.


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