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Cracking down on sewage pollution in the UK

  • Cracking down on sewage pollution in the UK

Southern Water, one of the largest water and wastewater companies in the South East of England, has been singled out as one of the country’s worst offenders in terms of sewage pollution, reports the BBC.

A report from NGO Surfers Against Sewage has revealed evidence of sewage pollution affecting UK’s seas and rivers, with over 5,500 sewage overflow discharge notifications by water companies over a twelve-month period impacting bathing waters. Most of them (more than 3,300) occurred during the bathing season, which runs from May 15 to September 30. The report points to Southern water as the poorest performer, with 1,949 sewage discharge notifications during the 2021 bathing season.

This is not the first time the company’s weak environmental performance stands out. The Environment Agency’s (EA) environmental performance report for 2020, looking at England’s nine water and sewerage companies, gave the lowest rating to Southern Water and South West Water, noting that “their performance has been consistently unacceptable during the last 5 years”. And Southern Water’s poor track record goes back even longer: it was sentenced last July to pay a record £90 million fine for thousands of illegal discharges of sewage between 2010 and 2015.

Meanwhile, Southern Water has recently announced it is taking action to tackle sewage pollution, with a £1.5 billion investment programme to reduce by 80 per cent all pollution incidents by 2025, and is setting up a task force which will work with local stakeholders to find innovative solutions to cut overflows.

The EA report looks a water pollution incidents from sewerage assets, but not pollution caused by sewage overflows. Storm overflows are considered a necessary part of the current sewerage system, designed to discharge sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. So, if they are operating in these circumstances and are compliant with their permit, they are not reported as pollution incidents.

Nevertheless, overflows from combined sewer systems are a long-standing challenge with major impacts on receiving waters, and weather variability caused by climate is expected to further overload urban drainage systems. The EA plans to increase monitoring of the existing 15,000 overflows operated by water companies; by the end of 2020 water companies were reporting on more than 12,000 storm overflows, and the requirement has been extended to monitor all storm overflows by December 2023. Last year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) established a new taskforce to address the problem, and it has been included in the Environment Bill, approved in November by the UK Parliament. But we expect more news on this issue, as also this past November the EA and Ofwat launched a major investigation into sewage treatment works after water companies admitted they may be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges.

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