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Raw sewage, dead fish and E.coli: Record £2.1m fine for water pollution in Devon and Cornwall

South West Water have been given a record £2.1m fine for years of water pollution in the region.

Rubbish polluting a river, Bude, Cornwall, UK. The £2.1m fine for South West Water s the largest in the region. Image: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

From rugged beaches to ancient rivers, the UK’s south-west counties of Devon and Cornwall are known for their beautiful swimming spots. But you might want to think twice before taking a dip. 

South West Water (SWW) has been fined a record £2.1 million for a string of environmental offences between in the region between 2016 and 2020 that are enough to make your stomach turn. 

Incidents mentioned in the report include pumping sewage into a local river for more than 35 hours, killing thousands of fish with an accidental chemical spill, and allowing E.coli levels to spike 2,000 times higher than the ‘poor’ rating at a local beach.    

SWW describes itself as “extremely passionate” about the environment – but District Judge Joanna Matson wasn’t impressed. 

“Incidents of pollution will no longer be tolerated by these courts,” she said after handing down the fine on Wednesday.

The fine is the largest ever imposed in the region.

Why is South West Water paying up?

The water company has been fined for 13 different environmental offences, taking place between July 2016 and August 2020.

The incidents – six for illegal water discharge activities and seven for  contravening environmental permit conditions – led to “significant environmental damage” according to the Environmental Authority (EA).

Thousands of fish died in the River Axe after a chemical spill at Kilmington, in East Devon, the EA said.

In 2016, raw sewage was pumped into the River Fowey for more than 12 hours, despite control room alarms sounding.

“Having alarms to alert you that sewage is spilling is no good if no action is taken,” said Clarissa Newell, Environment Agency environment manager for Devon and Cornwall.

On two occasions, sewage was pumped into the St John’s Lake Site of Special Scientific Interest. The lake is home to thousands of bird species including many protected species.

At Watergate Bay sewage pumping station, an illegal discharge lasted for more than 35 hours. Levels of the deadly E.coli bacteria in a stream on the beach were 2,000 times higher than the level classified as “poor,” a later sample showed.

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The fine “shows the shareholders and management of South West Water the importance of compliance”, Judge Matson said.

Susan Davy, chief executive of the Pennon Group, which owns SWW, said that the company was “extremely passionate” about the environment.

“Any pollution incident is one too many. These seven isolated incidents that took place between 2016 and 2020 were unacceptable and it’s right that we have been held to account by the EA,” she said.

“I also want to be clear that this didn’t happen because we don’t care, we do.”

‘Polluters put on notice’ claims Environmental Agency

The Environment Agency will not tolerate pollution in Britain’s rivers, EA chair Alan Lovell declared.

“We welcome this sentence. Serious pollution is a serious crime – and we have been clear that the polluter must pay,” he said.

“The Environment Agency will pursue any water company that fails to uphold the law or protect nature and will continue to press for the strongest possible penalties.”

Water Minister Rebecca Pow assured customers that the fine would be paid out of the company’s operating profits, and would not lead to bill hikes.

How bad is river and ocean pollution in the UK?

The UK’s beaches and rivers are some of the most contaminated in Europe.

Water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s waterways around 825 times per day in 2022, totalling more than 1.75 million hours of spillage. This eyewatering figure is down nearly a fifth (19 percent) on 2021.

Companies release sewage when they don’t have capacity to treat it at their facilities.

The issue is a political headache for the government. Almost half of Brits would vote for a party that promised to clean up the UK’s faeces-strewn rivers, research released today reveals.

The total proportion of those who said having healthy rivers at the top of a party’s manifesto would influence their decision to vote for them was 48 per cent, polling by YouGov for River Action UK found.

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The government unveiled its Plan for Water last month, with suppliers now set to face unlimited fines for sewage dumping.

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer has criticised it as “flimsy”. His party has said it will introduce automatic fines for sewage dumping, mandatory monitoring of sewage outlets, and legally-binding targets for cleaning up the water industry. They also launched an attack advert on Rishi Sunak.

But its attempts to pass a bill to that effect on Tuesday were thwarted by the government, who tabled their own amendment to Labour’s Opposition Day motion which simply pledged to take action on sewage. Labour ended up abstaining from the motion.

“Healthy rivers matter to every constituency and every politician – water is the life force of our society and economy. It’s time to put aside party political divides and unite around our shared future,” said James Wallace, CEO of River Action.

“We are in a freshwater emergency. Let’s see everyone work together for the common good and end this pathetic and divisive trend in populism.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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