Effluent discharge rules relaxed as supply chain disruptions bite

The Environment Agency has announced a relaxation of rules governing discharges from wastewater treatment plants after Brexit and covid related supply chain disruptions have put a key sewage treatment chemical in short supply.

Supply chain disruptions are endangering supplies of sewage treatment chemicals. Photograph: Robert Brook/Getty Images

In a regulatory position statement published yesterday, the agency said it would allow water firms to discharge effluent that has not been treated to levels stipulated in their environmental permits if they’re unable to get the chemicals needed to treat the sewage due to “the UK’s new relationship with the EU, coronavirus” or “other unavoidable supply chain failures”. 

The move could exacerbate the already poor condition of England’s rivers, none of which passed legal overall water quality standards in the latest assessment. The water sector is already under fire for its pollution of water bodies with raw sewage, prompting the government to table an amendment to the Environment Bill that would require companies to report in real-time on the time, location and duration of spills.

A spokesperson for Water UK said the sector was experiencing “some disruption to the supply in England of ferric sulphate, a chemical used at some drinking and wastewater treatment sites”, which had arisen due to “a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK”. They stressed that “there is no shortage of ferric sulphate in factories; the issue is solely one of distribution.”

Water UK said the shortage would not affect the supply of drinking water, but added that, “as a precaution, however, we are monitoring the situation due to the use of ferric sulphate in some waste treatment works. We are working closely with government and our chemical suppliers to ensure disruption is minimised”.

Green groups have reacted with a mix of dismay and anger.

Feargal Sharkey, vice president of Salmon and Trout Conservation, said the “subliminally ugly levels of Environment Agency incompetence continues to set new records” and that the move was “breathtaking in its stupidity". 

River Action chair Charles Watson said the “notion that the frequency of such discharges might actually be allowed to be legally increased is simply unbelievable”. 

“We have seen across the country this summer a huge public backlash against the ongoing ecological destruction of our precious rivers – as witnessed in the broad support of the current petitions to ban sewage discharges and restore the funding of our environmental  protection agencies,” he added. “Our elected politicians need to understand that the people of the UK are now saying loud and clear that enough is enough.”

The sentiment is echoed by the River Trust’s Mark Lloyd, who urged the government “take steps urgently to address the supply chain and labour issues that are causing a lowering of standards of effluent treatment”. 

“Relaxing the regulation of pollution is not a solution to the problem; they should instead be dealing with the root causes.  Our rivers are already suffering severe pollution from sewage and agriculture and they need a rapid improvement in water quality rather than a slow death by a thousand cuts,” said Lloyd.

Stuart Singleton-White from the Angling Trust described the situation as a mess. “Yet again our rivers and waters are treated as dumping grounds for the failure to plan and prepare.  We voted to leave the EU in 2016. Covid hit in early 2020. And yet no planning, no preparation for what was predictable for anyone who cared to look and plan,” he said. 

“It’s ironic this announcement is made on the first day of the Report Stage of the Environment Bill in the House of Lords. What clearer evidence does the government need that it needs to take decisive action to stop polluting our rivers. All they are offering are reports and working groups when we need action, not tomorrow; today.”

A spokesperson for DEFRA pointed out that the move is “strictly time-limited and there are robust conditions in place to mitigate risks to the environment”, and that the “most sensitive and high-risk watercourses will not be affected and any company planning to make use of this short-term measure must first agree its use with the Environment Agency, which will be checking compliance”.

DEFRA said that the regulatory position statement means that water firms would not need to go through the third stage of treating effluent if an unavoidable shortage of chemicals should occur. Primary and secondary treatment of wastewater would not be affected by the position statement, the department said. DEFRA added that water companies had yet to make use of the position statement, and may not need to.

The position statement will be withdrawn on 31 December, unless it is extended. 

This story has been amended. The previous version said incorrectly that the RPS would allow more raw sewage to be discharged into rivers.