Environment

Will the Environment Bill stop sewage being dumped in rivers? - and how did MPs vote?

Sewage has been in the headlines recently, but what's actually going on in our rivers - and what are MPs doing about it?

River pollution has been in the headlines recently. Image: Simon Dean (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Raw sewage is dumped into UK rivers so regularly that our waterways are some of the most polluted in Europe – with just 17 per cent rated as in “good” ecological condition. 

Though the issue has been ongoing for several years, sewage has dominated the headlines in recent weeks thanks to a controversial vote on the Environment Bill.

While the government has claimed it is acting to protect rivers from sewage, clean river campaign groups have contested this idea, fearing the protections MPs have now voted through will be too weak to solve the problem.

So what exactly has happened up to now? Here’s everything you need to know about sewage in your river – and how the Environment Bill may change the situation.  

Why is there so much sewage in the rivers?

Following extreme weather events, water companies are permitted to discharge sewage into rivers via pipes known as “storm overflows”.

This is to prevent infrastructure from becoming overwhelmed, which could lead to sewage backing up into people’s homes.

However, a series of investigations by citizen scientists and the press have revealed sewage is being dumped into rivers around the country far more frequently than had been claimed, with a large number of discharges happening illegally. 

Water companies say the increased level of discharges is down to an increase in extreme weather events, outdated infrastructure and increased pressures on the system. 

Why is sewage in the news?

The issue of sewage pollution has hit headlines in recent weeks thanks to the Environment Bill going through parliament.

The bill includes an array of environmental protections and laws, one of which is a duty on water companies to reduce the amount of sewage being dumped in rivers. 

When the bill passed to the House of Lords, peers added an amendment which would place a duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.

After being returned to the Commons, MPs voted against this part of the amendment, citing claims that it would create unmanageable costs for water companies. 

The vote caused a huge backlash among the public, who piled pressure onto Conservative MPs who had voted the amendment down. 

Eventually the government U-turned, offering to put forward its own amendment to “ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.”

What does the new amendment say? 

The new amendment to the bill wasn’t published until late on Friday November 5. The vote was scheduled for Monday 8.

It has now been published and voted on, and reads: “A sewerage undertaker whose area is wholly or mainly in England must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows.”

MPs voted for this amendment instead of the Lords amendment.

Why is the vote controversial? 

The government has said its amendment to the bill will secure a reduction in sewage discharges.

Some clean river campaigners have claimed that the wording of the Commons amendment is far less strong than the one put forward by the Lords. 

While the Commons amendment moves to “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges”, the Lords amendment proposed water companies “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.

Campaign group Windrush WASP said of the Commons amendment: 

‘Illegal pollution will soon become a protected activity as long as water companies can show they are doing something to reduce it.’

Musician Feargal Sharkey, who has campaigned extensively on sewage pollution, said the amendment was a vote to “legalise the dumping of sewage into England’s rivers”. 

Over the weekend, The Department of Environment and Rural Affairs said it was “incorrect” to say the Commons amendment is weaker than the one put forward by the Lords. 

The department Tweeted: 

“Our amendment says that water companies must progressively reduce harm from #StormOverflows.

“That means they must reduce the operation of storm overflows – plain and simple. This does not override existing law, but places an ADDITIONAL duty on companies.

“Our version brings the new duty under the Water Industry Act’s powerful enforcement mechanism.”

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