Water companies are being allowed to discharge sewage into England’s protected natural areas, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, from almost 900 different locations, most of which are not monitored by the Environment Agency (EA). I can reveal.
A joint investigation of I and SourceMaterial, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, discovered the locations of almost 7,000 “emergency overflow” points across England.
It found that 890 of these pipes, different from the stormwater overflows that water companies use during bad weather, are located in protected areas, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Lake District and New Forest.
Water companies are only allowed to release untreated waste from emergency overflows when they face a failure in their infrastructure, such as a blockage or mechanical breakdown.
But information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that some of these pipes discharge sewage more than once a week, on average.
AE has no idea how much waste is being dumped at most of these sites since, unlike storm overflows, they are not being monitored.
Experts said I These emergency overflows are a “further example” of the challenges facing Britain’s lakes and rivers and they said better monitoring is “urgently” needed to reduce their impact on the environment.
Water companies have come under intense scrutiny over the amount of raw sewage being discharged into Britain’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters.
Until now, public outrage has largely centered on the use of “storm overflows”, in which water companies are allowed to discharge waste during periods of heavy rain, to prevent their infrastructure from becoming overloaded and for sewage to return to people’s homes.
The Government forced water companies to provide more data on the amount of sewage discharged in these storms. All of these locations are now equipped with monitoring devices, compared to just 7% in 2010.
This monitoring has revealed the extent to which Britain’s waterways are being polluted with sewage, with water companies reporting 301,091 individual spills in 2022.
But much less is known about how much waste is being released by emergency overflows, as the EA currently only requires water companies to report sewage spills from these pipes if they discharge into waters designated for shellfish farming.
It is understood that the EA plans to introduce a phased implementation of monitoring of all permitted emergency overflows from 2025.
Data obtained by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which was viewed by Ifound that only 10% of these excesses are currently monitored.
Sewage was released in more than a third of these emergency overflows in 2022 and 60% of them released sewage more than once, the data revealed.
Due to limited monitoring, data is only available for 161 of the 890 emergency overflows that our research identified as occurring in protected areas. More than a third of this sewage spilled in 2022, for a total of 265 spills.
“We know that many emergency overflows repeatedly discharge raw, undiluted sewage; this is despite Environment Agency licenses requiring water companies to have a number of measures in place to prevent this from happening,” said Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at MCS.
“Water companies are failing our environment, with raw sewage polluting some of our most valuable natural spaces,” she said, adding that regulators must have “the capacity” to prosecute those who fail to comply with their licenses. .
James Wallace, CEO of campaign group River Action UK, said: “Defra likes to claim that most or all sewage overflows are monitored. As with many statements from our poor and under-resourced environmental regulators, this is far from the truth. They seem concerned about creating greenwash laced with poisonous effluents to protect an outgoing government, rather than protecting the health of our rivers and communities.”
The emergency overflows, polluting our ‘most precious’ landscapes
While little is known about how much sewage is being discharged through emergency overflows, the data we have shows that some pipes are discharging at a frequent rate, including those within conservation sites.
This includes a pipe located under a bridge crossing Dean Brook, a tributary of the River Ribble, which lies within the Forest of Bowland, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire.
The creek marks the start of the Tolkien Trail, named after the author of The Lord of the Rings, who spent a lot of time in the area while writing his fantasy epic.
But anyone who wants to follow in the author’s footsteps today may find a less idyllic scenario, as waste from the overflow of this site was dumped 83 times in 2022, almost twice a week on average, totaling 1,341 hours in which sewage was being dispensed.
Jack Spees, CEO of the Ribble Rivers Trust, said he was “really concerned” about the data.
“We would like to understand why and make sure that the data is correct and, if it is correct, that [water company United Utilities] is doing something about it.
“Our rivers and streams are full of vibrant life that has a right to exist and not be poisoned by humans. They’re really important places for people to recreate themselves. People will visit healthier streams,” she said.
Around 80 miles north, in the Lake District National Park, there is another emergency overflow that has occurred 34 times in 2021, totaling 660.5 hours.
The tube, at Pooley Bridge on the north shore of Lake Ullswater, is also within a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Matt Staniek, a conservationist and founder of the Save Windermere campaign, said the “shocking absence of full monitoring of overflows reflects the Government’s lackadaisical approach to regulating the profit-focused private water industry, despite its history of illegal spillage”.
“More shocking is that our most treasured landscapes are not immune, with sewage dumping widespread across the Lake District National Park, including at Windermere and Pooley Bridge in the Eden SSSI catchment,” he added.
United Utilities, which owns both emergency overflows, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a separate freedom of information request, shared with ISouth West Water admitted that it was “not always the case” that an emergency occurred when it used its emergency overflows.
The water company said it had identified “properties where the roofs of buildings connect to the sewer, creating high flows at downstream pump stations”, meaning storms could cause spills in certain emergency overflows.
The company said it intends to redesign the sewers at these sites or obtain the appropriate licenses from the Environment Agency.
The data obtained by I in emergency overflow pipes only covers England, but in response to a freedom of information request, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water has confirmed it has had to report 24 pollution incidents to its regulator, Natural Resources Wales, as a result of emergency overflows in 2022.
Dŵr Cymru Welsh water said I Emergency overflows “play an essential role in preventing sewage from returning to the network and onto customers’ properties in the event of a pumping station failure.”
Natural Resources Wales said that 110 (14 per cent) of Welsh Water’s emergency overflows are currently monitored, however there is currently no regulatory requirement to monitor these pipes and the majority of these monitors have been installed on the “assumption” that the pipes were storm overflows.
It said it will require both of Wales’ water companies, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and Hafren Dyfrdwy, to install monitors on all of their emergency overflows during the next investment period, which runs from 2025 to 30, as well as requiring that “ maintain appropriate certification.”
ISave Britain’s Rivers Campaign
For the past year I has been highlighting the disgusting state of Britain’s rivers, lakes and beaches through our Save Britain’s Rivers campaign.
In collaboration with our sister title, New Scientist, we showed how water companies are dumping waste into our most precious bodies of water and how a lax regulatory system allows them to get away with it.
We revealed how a water company drove 240 lorries of untreated waste into an overflowing pumping station in a popular Devon seaside town and took a deep dive into the issue of sewage tankers, which are destroying Britain’s most idyllic villages and national parks. -Brittany.
We have held the Environment Agency to account for its failures to penalize those who break the rules, revealing last year that the agency is failing to control 90 per cent of toxic water spills in England.
Our reporters traveled to the parts of the country most affected by this scandal to meet with those who speak out against water companies and their regulators.
Together with these passionate advocates, we will deliver the policy changes needed to restore Britain’s rivers to their once pristine state.
Ben Surridge, senior lecturer in environmental science at Lancaster University, said the emergency overflows were “yet another example of the pressures our freshwaters are facing”.
“We urgently need better data and understanding of the real impact of these emergency overflows on freshwaters. This will provide the basis for appropriate policy, regulation and enforcement to minimize any negative impacts associated with these spillovers,” he said.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Emergency overflows can only operate in urgent circumstances to prevent environmental damage or harm to the public, such as a power failure or mains disruption.
“We are taking action to introduce monitoring of all emergency overflows and have already required water companies to monitor emergency overflows associated with designated shellfish waters. We investigate any cases where licenses are not being followed and will always take enforcement action if necessary.”