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Environment

Sewage dumped into rivers almost 400,000 times in 2021

New data shows that sewage was dumped into England’s rivers almost 400,000 times in 2021, sparking outrage from clean river campaigners.

Sewage was dumped into England’s rivers 372,533 times in 2021 over a period of 2.6 million hours, new data has revealed.

The number of spills overall has declined since 2020, when 403,171 were recorded, but clean river campaigners say the figures are still too high given dumping is only supposed to occur in exceptional circumstances.

Many spills also go unrecorded due to not all overflow pipes being monitored.

Ashley Smith of river campaign group Windrush WASP said the dumping of sewage in 2022 “far exceeded what could be described as dumping in ‘exceptional circumstances'”.

The data comes as the government publishes its consultation into reducing sewage spills into rivers, with a pledge to eliminate the environmental impact of 3,000 storm overflows “affecting our most important protected sites” by 2035.

Storm overflows are pipes which allow sewage to be spilled into rivers following bouts of extreme weather to reduce pressure on water companies’ infrastructure.

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The government has also said there will be 70 per cent fewer discharges into bathing waters by 2035.

MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) welcomed the announcement, saying it represented a “sea change” in policy action around sewage.

Clean river campaigners, however, say the measures don’t go far enough. Currently, just one river in England is designated as a bathing water, while 3,000 storm overflows represent less than a quarter of the total storm overflow pipes in England.

What Defra hypes as progress is dreadfully inadequate and seems to be treating the public as fools; it’s like offering to pour water on your house after it has burned down,” Smith of Windrush WASP said.

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England’s rivers are some of the worst-polluted in Europe, with every single one failing a pollution test in 2020 and just 14 per cent rated as in ecologically “good” condition.

Earlier this year, a report from the EAC warned that rivers could be breeding drug-resistant diseases as a result of a “chemical cocktail” of pollutants in waterways.

Rivers are being damaged by a range of pollutants including sewage, which is dumped into rivers on an alarmingly regular basis.

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Water companies are permitted to spill sewage into rivers via storm overflow pipes with a licence following extreme weather conditions, but a number of spills have taken place illegally.

Water companies have blamed outdated sewage infrastructure for the number of spills into rivers, saying that they are unable to cope with growing populations and more extreme weather.

Campaigners have criticised the companies for failing to invest in infrastructure, with Thames, Southern and Yorkshire Water all paying out dividends in 2020 in spite of pledges to invest the money into upgrades.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive at charity Surfers Against Sewage said:

“Water companies have been pumping untreated sewage into our waterways for millions of hours, and yet industry bosses have the gall to say tackling this ‘wasn’t on our customers priority list.’

“We’re sure customers haven’t been calling for eye-watering profits and salaries for water company executives but this never stopped them. These ill-gotten gains must be taken out of the pockets of industry fat cats and invested in protecting and restoring our rivers and seas.”

Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said:

“Water companies have rightly been under increasing pressure from the Environment Agency, campaigners and the public for allowing far too many sewage spills into rivers, and we are holding the industry to account on a scale never done before.

“Requiring water companies to provide this data is critical in ensuring everyone can see what is going on. I am pleased that we are on course to have all overflows monitored by next year, but the present situation is simply not good enough. Water companies need to act now to reduce their overflows to the minimum possible.”

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