Water companies deprioritise rivers after effluent rules relaxed

Sections of the river Thames and the Yorkshire Ouse have been earmarked, among other sites, to receive effluent that has not been fully treated in the event that treatment chemicals are not available for water companies, it has been revealed.

The Yorkshire Ouse have been earmarked, among other sites, to receive untreated effluent. Photograph: Fraser Hall/Getty Images The Yorkshire Ouse have been earmarked, among other sites, to receive untreated effluent. Photograph: Fraser Hall/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Environment Agency (EA) published a regulatory position statement allowing 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 EA has now sent the not-for-profit organisation Fish Legal the result of risk assessments conducted by the water companies for their Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW) in England.

The risk assessment provides a list of Category A WWTW, which are “less critical” and “likely to have low environmental and downstream abstraction impact and should be de-prioritised in the scenario that treatment chemicals are unavailable, and all other mitigations have been exhausted”.

The list of rivers to be “deprioritised” includes the rivers Exe, Mole, Thames, Adur, Sussex Ouse, Yorkshire Ouse, Costa Beck Yorkshire Derwent, Calder, Humber, Kennett, Bristol Avon, Yeo Bure, Ant, Stour, Weaver, Eden and Dane. 

But Fish Legal says the risk assessment gives scope for water companies to treat certain water bodies “in a sacrificial way”. 

It argues that wastewater will not have been treated using chemicals that primarily reduce the amount of phosphate released into rivers. This in turn could lead to algal blooms which destroy river habitats, it said.

Fish Legal says many of the water bodies earmarked are already under pressure and it is encouraging its members and concerned members of the public to review the list of waterbodies for their local areas included in category A (see below). 

“If anyone is concerned about any of their local rivers, they are urged to contact the water companies to find out what protections have been put in place to ensure that there is no pollution or environmental harm,” the group said.

The EA’s move to relax the rules 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.

Dr Justin Neal, solicitor at Fish Legal, said: “The EA has published a position statement which purportedly allows water companies to break their environmental permits and to discharge sewage that isn’t fully treated to the standard required by the permits. The water companies have been left to choose which sewage works fall into the “low risk” category when the stocks of chemicals run low. 

“The risk assessment together with the RPS provides a get-out-of jail card which sacrifices some rivers where there are shortages. Many of these waterbodies are already under pressure and there will inevitably be precious little monitoring to establish whether discharges are legitimate and what the environmental consequences will be.”

On publishing the RPS a spokesperson for DEFRA pointed out that the move was “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 EA, which will be checking compliance”.

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