Environment

Pollution fine for UK water company after sewage kills thousands of fish

The UK's largest water utility company has been forced to pay £2.3 million after allowing the pollution of a river in the south of England.

Thousands of fish were found dead after the sewage leak at Henley by Thames Water.

Thousands of fish were found dead after the sewage leak at Henley by Thames Water. Credit: Environment Agency.

The UK’s largest water utilities company has been hit with a multi-million pound fine after failing to prevent “foreseeable” pollution which led to the decimation of local fish populations.

Thames Water has been forced to pay £2.3 million after a stream in the south of England was polluted by sewage.

Jackie Outhwaite, the Environment Agency’s lead investigator, said: “Thames Water could and should have prevented this pollution through better management of sewage-treatment.

“Our investigation found the risk of pollution was increased by a lack of measures in place to prevent it. Thames Water’s failure to respond to warning alarms ultimately led to significant harm on water quality.

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Aylesbury Crown Court heard sewage with high levels of ammonia killed more than 1,100 fish and other wildlife in Fawley Court Ditch after “poor management” and ignored warnings at Thames Water’s site at Henley, Oxfordshire, in April 2016.

The court was told a number of faults at the plant had a significant effect on sewage treatment, including low oxygen levels to control water treatments, delayed responses to alarm warnings and a lack of sewage treatment monitoring in the week prior to the incident.

Machines to aerate effluent and reduce ammonia totals weren’t working. Probes measuring the standard of the treatment process were also out of order.

Sewage pollution in Fawley Court Ditch at Henley-on-Thames
Thames Water sewage pollution
The results of the sewage in the Oxfordshire river. Credit: Environment Agency

The Environment Agency said the river lost almost all of its fish and took a year to recover, with an investigation finding ammonia levels in Fawley Court Ditch were, at worst, double the permitted limits.

Janina Gray, head of science and environmental policy at Salmon and Trout Conservation, said: “It is good to see Thames Water being held to account in yet another pollution incident but we need preventative action to stop these incidents from happening in the first place.
“This will only be achieved by a combination of Ofwat-mandated investment, much stricter monitoring of sewage works and tougher enforcement by the Environment Agency. Until this happens, these destructive incidents will continue to add to the growing list of pressures impacting our river environments”.

Thames Water pled guilty on February 26 and were handed their fine, as well as being ordered to pay the Environment Agency’s costs of £87,944.

“The Environment Agency’s enforcement action over several years and the pressure it has put on water companies has led to £30 billion of investment by the industry in water quality,” said Outhwaite. “The damage caused to the environment at Henley, however, shows water companies have a lot more to do to protect the environment.”

This latest conviction brings the total amount of fines levied against Thames Water since 2017 to £24.4 million for nine cases of water pollution across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

Sarah Bentley, Thames Water CEO, who joined the company in September 2020, said: “We’re really sorry for what happened in Henley five years ago. Discharges of untreated sewage are simply unacceptable and we will work with the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to accelerate work to stop them being necessary.

“Our business plan for the next five years includes an unprecedented amount of investment, much of it directed towards safeguarding the environment. We have a long way to go and we certainly can’t do it on our own – but the ambition is clear.

“My aim will always be to try and do the right thing for our rivers and for the communities who love and value them.

“I am passionate that we set out stretching targets and learn from past mistakes like this. There is still a lot to clean up from the past and also a great deal to invest in the future – with today a brilliant example of both.”

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