EA faces legal action over microplastics in sewage sludge

The Environment Agency (EA) and environment secretary Thérèse Coffey are facing legal action for abandoning a commitment to legislate on sewage sludge spread on land which has been found to contain harmful levels of ‘forever chemicals’.

New campaign group, Fighting Dirty, argues that the EA has acted unlawfully by not acting on the problem, which it has acknowledged presents a risk to human health.

The EA regulates the use of sludge made up of processed sewage solids, industrial effluent, and surface water run-off. Water companies sell the sludge to farmers to spread on agricultural land as a fertiliser.

The rules governing the spreading of sewage sludge have not been updated since 1989, the campaign group says.  

A report commissioned by the EA in 2017 and uncovered by Greenpeace found English crops contaminated with dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health”. 

In 2020, the EA published a strategy for safe and sustainable sludge use stating that the “do nothing option is unacceptable” and that regulations would be introduced by mid-2023, bringing testing and regulation of sludge into the Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR). 

But in an updated strategy published in August 2023, this deadline was removed, and no further timescale was provided for action, according to the campaigners. 

A 2022 study by scientists at the University of Cardiff and University of Manchester concluded that European farmland was potentially the biggest reservoir of microplastics in the world, due to the high concentrations contained in sewage sludge.

UK soils were found to have the highest level of microplastic contamination in Europe, with 500 – 1,000 microplastic particles applied per square metre of agricultural land each year. The same study states that microplastics pose a significant threat to wildlife as they are easily ingested and can carry contaminants, toxic chemicals and hazardous pathogens, potentially impacting the whole food chain. 

Fighting Dirty was formed in October 2023 by George Monbiot, Georgia Elliot-Smith and Steve Hynd. It is planning to use the legal system to challenge mechanisms that enable pollution, and is supported by Matrix Chambers and solicitors Leigh Day. It uses crowdfunding to support its cases.

Campaigner and journalist George Monbiot said that spreading contaminated sludge over farmland was worse than dumping raw sewage into rivers because the sludge poisons the soil before seeping into waterways.

“The rules are at fault. By failing to update them, and by suppressing and ignoring the evidence of its own officials, the government is in breach of its legal obligations to protect the living world and human health,” he added. 

Campaigner Elliott-Smith said that the EA had effectively reverted to a ‘do nothing’ position, which it had originally stated was unacceptable to protect human and environmental health. 

“Farmers are unknowingly being sold potentially highly toxic material to spread on their land, poisoning our soil, watercourses, and food, and we have no hope of a date when this situation will be resolved. It is unacceptable to be left in limbo like this,” she said.  

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “As the responsible regulator in England for the supply, treatment, storage and use of sludge, the purpose of our strategy is to enable its safe and sustainable use on land. This ensures water companies meet their environmental obligations while contributing to clean and plentiful water and soil that is healthy and productive.”