Water companies could face legal action after investigation launched into sewage treatment works 25 November 2021

The Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat have launched a major investigation into sewage treatment works, after new checks led to water companies admitting that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses.

This investigation will involve more than 2,000 sewage treatment works, with any company caught breaching their legal permits facing enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can be up to 10% of annual turnover for civil cases, or unlimited in criminal proceedings.

In recent years the EA and Ofwat have been pushing water companies to improve their day-to-day performance and meet progressively higher standards to protect the environment. As part of this, the EA has been checking that water companies comply with requirements and has asked them to fit new monitors at sewage treatment works. This is to make sure the right levels of wastewater are being treated before overflows are allowed to enter the environment.

Following this action by the EA, several water companies have now revealed that many of their sewage treatment works may not be compliant. This would mean that water companies are in breach of their permits and failing to meet their legal duties. EA and Ofwat are now looking into all water and sewerage companies to assess the scale of the problem. Any company caught breaching these minimum standards will face a range of possible enforcement action – up to and including prosecution.

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: “The private sector is under increasing pressure to demonstrate tangible commitments on protecting the environment. This shows why we need robust and well-funded regulation to provide the public, investors and customers with assurances about what is being delivered on the ground. I would like to see the levels of penalties for corporate environmental crime in England go up significantly.” More attention should also be paid to the directors of companies that are guilty of repeated, deliberate or reckless breaches of environmental law. Such directors should be struck off and in the most grievous cases given custodial sentences.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Through the Environment Act, it has introduced clear new duties to legally require water companies to make progressive reductions in the adverse impacts of storm overflows. Any water companies not abiding by their permits are also expected to take immediate action to urgently address any non-compliance while these investigations are ongoing.”

Full details of the investigation – including specific companies – were not shared out of fears of prejudicing future legal proceedings.

More than 12,000 of England’s 15,000 storm overflows now have Event Duration Monitors, and the remaining 3,000 will all have them by end 2023. All the data is published online via https://is.gd/dudewo, so the public can see what is happening in their local area.

The EA and Ofwat are also now requiring the companies to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works to identify what is happening at those works during the sewage treatment process itself. This will uncover whether the companies are complying properly with the conditions in their permits on the volumes of sewage they must treat before they are allowed to divert any untreated sewage to storm overflows.

Water company boards certify every year that they have the funding, management resources and systems and controls in place to fulfil their regulated activities, including to meet their environmental obligations. They must notify Ofwat if they are aware of anything that may materially affect their ability to fulfil those duties.

Operations Engineer

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