Environment

Calls for polluters to face prison as water companies fail to tackle sewage problem

A report by the Environment Agency has found performance on tackling pollution in rivers has fallen to its lowest ever level, and calls for tougher punishments.

A river in some woodlands

Rivers are facing pollution from a number of sources including sewage and plastics. Image: Smalljim, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Water company bosses responsible for the worst cases of sewage pollution should face prison sentences, the Environment Agency (EA) has said.

The EA has released a report outlining the environmental performance of England’s nine water and sewerage companies, finding performance on tackling pollution has fallen to its lowest ever level.

Chair Emma Howard Boyd called the findings “appalling” and also called for “much higher fines” for all chief executives who oversee environmental crimes. 

The EA measures water and sewerage companies against an “Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA)” which assesses their performance on environmental commitments out of four stars. 

Its 2021 report found performance had declined in most companies, with Southern Water and South West Water given just one star, while four other companies were awarded two, meaning they all require significant improvement.

Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities achieved four stars.

The report also found seven out of nine companies had an increase in serious pollution events since 2020. There were 62 incidents in 2021, the highest number since 2013. 

Pollution of waterways has become a hot button issue in recent years, with investigations revealing thousands of illegal sewage discharges by water companies over the past few years. 

In 2021, data shows that sewage was dumped into rivers for over 2.6 million hours. 

The quantity of sewage in rivers is causing immense ecological damage to plant and animal life, with a report warning last year that the pollution could be creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Wild swimmers have also reported falling ill after swimming in polluted rivers

The EA said it has levied enforcement action against water companies for pollution events, but they are “undeterred by the penalties currently being issued by the courts”. 

In light of the findings, the EA is now calling for:

  • Prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents
  • Company directors being struck off so they cannot simply move on in their careers after illegal environmental damage
  • Courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents as many fines handed down are less than a chief executive’s salary

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage said: “The stench of environmental vandalism and rampant profiteering now hangs permanently over the water industry. The industry has catastrophically failed and urgent legislative and legal action must be taken to prevent a few industry fat cats from robbing the nation of clean rivers and coastlines, thriving with life. 

“Water company directors are overseeing the collapse of our blue ecosystems, drowning us in deceit, evading their legal responsibility to protect the environment and selling us all down the river. This is now a reckoning for an industry that has blue-washed its record for too long.”

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