EA accused of being ‘too soft’ on water companies after incident sees sewage litter continue to enter protected site

The Environment Agency (EA) has been accused of being “too soft” on water companies after giving United Utilities six months to ensure its infrastructure for screening litter from being discharged unlawfully into a protected river is compliant.

Sewage litter at river Kent. Photo from Fish Legal

In February 2023, United Utilities was found to be in breach of its permit for its Kendal Wastewater Treatment Works in Cumbria, with the company needing to improve its screen used to prevent items such as wet wipes, condoms and sanitary towels from entering the river Kent, which is a designated special area of conservation (SAC). 

The pollution was highlighted by Ian Carradus, president of Kent (Westmoreland) Angling Association, who filmed hundreds of sanitary towns and condoms hanging from tree branches downstream of the treatment works.

He said: “This river is so precious to our club members and the local community, and it is heartbreaking to see it being treated in this way. 

“It feels to us as though United Utilities do not see protecting the river as a priority and the Environment Agency are far too soft on water companies when it comes to forcing them to stop polluting.”

Penelope Gane, head of practice at non-profit membership association Fish Legal, said: “While in Westminster there are promises of urgent action to end river pollution, on the ground water companies are allowed a much more leisurely timetable to clean up their act. It is not good enough.  

“Where pollution is identified and permit breaches are identified, work to fix the problem needs to be done immediately.”

She added that it is not the first time that Fish Legal has represented the angling group in relation to incidents involving  the Kendal Wastewater Treatment Works.  

She continued: “We brought a successful judicial review with the angling club in 2019 when Cumbria County Council failed to look at the environmental impacts of a ‘temporary’ sewage overfall at the works before granting it planning permission.  

“United Utilities defended that claim but lost against the angling club in court.”

United Utilities has estimated that the work will be completed by October 2023, according to Fish Legal, however according to the EA the company must make improvements to the screen by the start of September. 

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Until such works on the screen are complete, United Utilities are required to carry out riverbank inspections each time it rains to check for the presence of sewage litter and clear up as appropriate.

“The Environment Agency will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental harm to account. As the environmental regulator, our ability to protect England’s waters depends on having the right powers and resources available.”

A spokesperson for United Utilities said: “We absolutely agree that we need to move further and faster to improve on storm overflows, and we are determined to do that.

“We are already getting on with the work, which will include upgraded inlet screens at Kendal Wastewater Treatment Works so that more sewage litter can be captured before it can enter the river, and are committed to completing this as soon as we can. In the meantime, we are closely monitoring performance so we can take action if any issues arise.

“We have ambitious investment plans that will deliver real benefits to the environment and our communities, including our new ‘river rangers’ who will be starting soon to help reduce pollution in Cumbria’s waterways.”