April 13, 2024

Spillage of raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas will double by 2023

  • By Esme Stallard and Jonah Fisher
  • BBC News Climate and Science

Image source, Getty Images

Sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas by water companies more than doubled last year.

According to the Environment Agency, there were 3.6 million hours of spills, compared to 1.75 million hours in 2022.

Water UK, the industry body responsible for sewage companies, said it was “unacceptable” but the record levels were due to heavy rain.

Spilling sewage may be legal, but environmentalists say it should only happen in exceptional weather conditions.

And the Environment Agency said: “It is important to note that heavy rainfall does not affect the responsibility of water companies to manage storm overflows in accordance with legal requirements.”

The UK has combined sewer systems, which means that rain and sewage share the same pipes, so if there is too much rain, sewage treatment works can become overwhelmed. Sewage is spilled into waterways to prevent the system from backing up.

It turns out that, on average, last year there were 1,271 spills per day across England, compared to 825 in 2022.

Contained in the spills are human waste, baby wipes and sanitary products, which can pose a serious risk to local wildlife, swimmers and others using the UK’s waterways.

Rain can help dilute sewage, but academics warn that there is still a risk to the local environment and to those who swim in these bodies of water.

“Sewage pollution in the UK has a severe impact on waterways, and not a single river in England has been classified as healthy, according to the latest Rivers Trust Rivers report,” said Dr Dania Albini, researcher at biosciences at the University of Exeter.

She explained that sewage in rivers can reduce oxygen levels in the water, which harms aquatic life and “causes disease [in humans] due to the presence of harmful microorganisms and parasites.”

In March this year, when the River Thames was flooded, tests in Fulham Reach carried out by the charity River Action revealed that there were up to 10 times the amount of E.coli bacteria allowed for bathing water status.

Andy Mitchell, CEO of Tideway, told BBC News: “We will capture the vast majority of sewage reaching the river and that will mean a cleaner river.”

Last year, on behalf of all English sewerage companies, Water UK announced it would invest £10 billion to improve sewerage infrastructure – but these plans must first be approved by regulator Ofwat.

Water UK has called on the government to speed up this decision and also other plans such as a ban on baby wipes, which they say would eliminate thousands of spills that are happening as a result of blocked drains. The government first promised to introduce this ban six years ago.

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: I have been clear that sewage pollution in our waters is unacceptable. Current data shows that water companies must go further and faster to address storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways. We will ensure the Environment Agency closely examines these findings and takes enforcement action where necessary.”

In response to the data, Labor Environment Secretary Steve Reed called on the government to introduce an immediate ban on bonuses for those responsible for polluting water. Ofwat is currently carrying out a consultation to consider this measure.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said he called on the government to declare a national emergency. “This should include calling an urgent SAGE meeting to look at the impact of sewage spills on people’s health,” he said.

Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said: “The £57 billion in payments from the water industry over the last 30 years should have gone towards improving standards.”

The latest data, revealed by the Environment Agency on Wednesday, was obtained from monitoring stations installed at combined sewer overflows or CSOs. CSOs were developed as overflow valves to reduce the risk of sewage backing up in people’s homes during heavy rains when sewer pipes become overwhelmed.

The global number of spills was expected to be higher due to high rainfall in 2023 – which was 20% above average – and for the first time all 14,580 CSOs were equipped with monitors. In 2019, only 57% were equipped with monitors, meaning only half of spills were recorded.

James Wallace, CEO of the charity River Action, told BBC News he is not surprised by the high number of spills, but more because there is a lack of oversight from regulators.

“Water companies are not being forced to invest in repairing their leaky pipes – as long as we have an Environment Agency and Ofwat unable to do their job, we will not be in a position to wait for water companies to behave,” he said.

Ofwat and the Environment Agency are carrying out separate investigations into England’s nine sewage companies – with the outcome expected this year.

But these two agencies are themselves under investigation by the independent Office for Environmental Protection, which is concerned that they have incorrectly interpreted the law on sewage discharges – allowing spills whenever it rains and not just when there is “exceptional” rainfall.

Image source, simon collins

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Horley Treatment Works has flooded repeatedly over the last year

In the small Surrey town of Horley, close to Gatwick Airport, residents saw local paths flooded ten times last year as treatment plants struggled to cope with heavy rain.

Nigel Bond and Simon Collins, from local residents’ group River Mole Watch, said they had repeatedly contacted Thames Water and the Environment Agency about the issue, but said all they had done was put the sandbags on the ground.

Collins told BBC News: “There is a problem at this sewage plant in Horley where the rainwater tanks don’t discharge into the river, they just fill up and overflow.

“The sewage runs the entire length of the sidewalk… where people walk their dogs and children play.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said: “We consider any untreated discharges unacceptable. We have published plans to upgrade more than 250 of our sewage treatment plants, including our Horley sewage treatment plants. The upgrade is expected to begin built in 2025.

“However, we have temporarily closed the trail near the site while we work with contractors to build a new wall to help mitigate flooding.”

In Wales, there were more than 980,000 hours of sewage leaks from Welsh Water last year, according to separate figures released by the water company.

Sian Williams, head of operations at Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh regulator, said it continues to put pressure on the sector to reduce the number of spills.

Additional reporting by Sophie Woodcock, Becky Dale, Erwan Rivault and Rob England.

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