‘Full force of the law’: Water company fined more than £2m for sewage spills

South West Water (SWW) has been fined more than £2 million after a series of permit breaches and illegal discharges saw sewage, harmful chemicals and bacteria flood protected areas, public waterways and beaches.

The offences took place between July 2016 and August 2020, with the Environment Agency stating that a “failure to apply basic environment management principles” led to harmful chemicals escaping from SWW sites and resulted in significant environmental damage.

One incident, which occurred in 2016 at Lostwithiel in Cornwall, saw raw sewage pumped into the river Fowey for more than 12 hours, despite control room alarms indicating there was an issue with the works. 

Similar failures also saw an illegal discharge from the Watergate Bay sewage pumping station in August 2016, which lasted more than 35 hours. A sample taken from a stream at the nearby beach showed E. coli levels to be 2,000 times higher than the level that would be classified as ‘poor’.  

On two occasions, sewage from the Torpoint treatment works was pumped into the St John’s Lake which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the variety of birds and invertebrates in the area. The lake also lies within the Plymouth Sounds and Estuaries Special Area of Conservation.

A separate incident at Kilmington saw the die-off of thousands of fish in the river Axe, including some protected species.  

In total, SWW pleaded guilty to 13 charges, all brought under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 / 2016. Six charges were for illegal water discharge activities, contrary to section 12(1)(b) and 38(1)(a), and seven offences were for  contravening environmental permit conditions contrary to regulation 38(2).

Delivering the sentence at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on 26 April, District Judge Matson said “incidents of pollution will no longer be tolerated by these courts” and fined SWW £2,150,000.  

The water company was also ordered to pay £280,000 costs and £170 victim surcharge.  

According to the EA, this is the largest fine imposed for environmental offences in the region. The fine also comes within the top ten highest penalties given to water companies in the UK, according to the ENDS Report Fines Monitor, which spans over a decade. 

The largest ever fine was given to Southern Water in 2021, at moer than £90 million. 

 EA chair Alan Lovell said: “Serious pollution is a serious crime – and we have been clear that the polluter must pay.   

 “The Environment Agency will pursue any water company that fails to uphold the law or protect nature and will continue to press for the strongest possible penalties.” 

As part of a raft of announcements in DEFRA’s recently published Plan for Water, it was stated that any funds secured through fines and enforcement action against water companies will be reinvested into a new ‘Water Restoration Fund’ managed by DEFRA, rather than going to the Treasury.

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished using the full force of the law. 

“This fine reflects the severity of the pollution that occurred across Devon and Cornwall, causing damage to both wildlife and protected sites.

“It will rightly be paid solely from the company’s operating profits and not passed on to customer bills.”

Susan Davy, cheif executive of the Pennon Group, which owns SWW, said: “Any pollution incident is one too many.

"These seven isolated incidents that took place between 2016 and 2020 were unacceptable and it’s right that we have been held to account by the EA.

"I also want to be clear that this didn’t happen because we don’t care, we do. Everyone who works for South West Water is extremely passionate about our environment and we need to do more to prove this to our customers and visitors to our region. We have a plan, it is working and we won’t stop until everyone can feel proud about the performance of their water company in the South West.”