Environment

Sewage pollution: How much should water companies be fined for pumping sewage? Have your say

The Environmental Agency has opened a new public consultation on sewage pollution fines, bringing unlimited penalties one step closer

sewage

Sewage pollution blights some of the UK's most idyllic spots. Image: Nick Jones, Cove Cottages

How much do you think water companies should pay for pumping sewage into Britain’s waterways?

Until now, the maximum civil penalty has been £250,000. But the government plans to scrap this limit as public outrage over water pollution grows. The changes – intended to “make polluters pay” – were announced in June.

Now, the Environment Agency (EA) wants your thoughts on how the fines should work.

The agency has launched an eight-week consultation on the possibility of unlimited civil fines, which is the maximum amount they can impose on a polluter before taking them to criminal court.

The move will allow the EA to take quick action and avoid lengthy court proceedings, the government said.

Environment Agency executive director John Leyland described the enforcement powers as “an extra tool in our armoury.”

“They will act as a further deterrent – boosting compliance across a range of sectors and helping us provide stronger protection to the environment, communities and nature,” he said.

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To have your say on how these penalties should be calculated, and what offences should be subject to unrestricted fines, visit this website.

How bad is sewage pollution in the UK?

If you fancy a swim this summer, it might be best to avoid doing so after heavy rain.

The UK’s crumbling plumbing infrastructure was built in the 19th century – so the EA permits water companies to release overflow after heavy rains. 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 excrement and chemical effluent takes a huge toll on the quality of our lakes, rivers, and seas. Only 14% of rivers in England have “good” ecological status, the Environmental Agency has warned – making our rivers some of the most polluted in Europe.

Research from Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed recently revealed Britain’s beauty spots were also being affected by the issue with sewage pumped into protected conservation areas in England and Wales 1,200 times last year alone.

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Campaigners have called for tougher penalties for storm overflows. The Environment Agency has long campaigned for higher fines and even prison sentences for the water company bosses.

What about criminal cases of pollution?

The EA will be able to levy the new fines without launching criminal prosecutions – although the most serious cases will continue to be taken through criminal proceedings.

There’s no limit to what a judge can impose in a criminal court.

In July, Britain’s biggest water supplier Thames Water was fined £3.3 million after pleading guilty to polluting rivers in 2017.

Earlier this year, South West Water was fined £2.1 million for “significant environmental damage” in Devon and Cornwall. But the fine amounted to just 0.3% of the company’s pre-tax profits, a smaller percentage of annual income than a littering fine would be for the average UK earner.

Should water companies face unlimited fines for sewage pollution? Are prison sentences for the worst offenders fair? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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