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Are We Flushing Our Environment down the Drain?

If the recent BBC Panorama programme 'The River Pollution Scandal' doesn’t ring any alarm bells then it should. The programme exposed evidence that water companies in England and Wales are illegally dumping raw sewage into many of our rivers and it seems that the Environment Agency is either unable or unwilling to do much about it.

Water Treatment 1

A Catalogue of Pollution

According to figures for 2020 published by The Environment Agency:

  • Water companies discharged raw sewage (untreated human waste to you and me) into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times.
  • Water companies were actively polluting our rivers for a total of 3.1 million hours.
  • According to a WWF report, Flushed Away, data that was made available from one water company suggests that 14% of overflows are spilling untreated sewage into rivers more than once a week, and half are spilling more than once a month. Some are spilling hundreds of times a year.

And it isn’t just one or two water companies. Whilst United Utilities, Severn-Trent, and Yorkshire Water are the worst offenders, data shows that all water companies are engaged in the practice. See the Table below.

Storm Overflow Sewage Discharge 2020 (Source: Environment Agency)

Water Company

Number of Discharges

Hours Discharged

United Utilities

113,940

726,450

Yorkshire Water

65,083

559,699

Severn Trent

60,982

420,419

South West

42,053

375,372

Northumbrian

32,566

236,325

Wessex

28,964

215,887

Southern

19,782

197,213

Thames

18,443

180,287

Anglian

17,385

170,326

Welsh

3,845

20,256

Note: Data for Welsh Water is for operations in England only.

Why are the water companies dumping raw sewage into our rivers?

The water companies are obliged by law to treat all sewage before it is pumped back into our rivers. They can only pump untreated sewage into rivers under exceptional circumstances, for example, after extreme or persistently high levels of rainfall. This is allowed to avoid urban drainage systems backing up and discharging waste water onto our streets and gardens and into our houses.

However, as the BBC Panorama programme reports, all the water companies they investigated were discharging untreated sewage into rivers during periods of normal flow. This is in breach of existing European laws that the UK signed up to prior to Brexit.

So, why is this happening?

The WWF report Flushed Away suggests; “.. companies are relying on sewer overflows to compensate for under-capacity”.

Why under-capacity?

  1. Increases in population, paved surfaces and the growth of housing are all placing increased demand on a sewer system that is at least 50 years old, and which doesn’t seem to be able to cope with normal, let alone abnormal flow events.
  2. Insufficient investment been made in order to modernise treatment plants and increase capacity.

Under capacity is at the heart of the problem and for many observers the reason for the lack of necessary investment can be found in who controls our water supply and treatment.

  • Water supply and treatment was sold off to private companies in the 1980’s. To this day England is the only country in the world which has a fully privatised water supply and treatment system.
  • The private water companies have simply not invested enough in increasing capacity and modernising plant, nor it seems have they been held to account by successive governments to do so.

What is the result?

The recent WWF report, found the following:

  • 55% of all rivers in England and Wales failing to reach the required good ecological status are polluted by wastewater.
  • Four out of five rivers (80%) in England and Wales fail to achieve ‘good ecological status.
  • Eutrophication which can lead to excessive algae blooms.
  • Oxygen depletion which affects fish survival.
  • Increased water toxicity.
  • Bioaccumulation where harmful compounds are concentrated in aquatic life and passed up the food chain.
  • Contamination of drinking water.
  • Health hazards for recreational users.

This is another clear example of negative human impact on an ecosystem and one which is totally avoidable.

Does it have to be this way?

The answer is no, it doesn’t. The frustration is that the technology exists to ensure none of the above happen. A good example of what can be done is the Minworth Sewage treatment works, operated ironically by serial offender Severn Trent Water, which deals with much of Birmingham’s waste water.

Minworth Sewage Treatment Works (Source: Envirotec)

Water Treatment 2

Note: The excellent BBC documentary; The Secret Science of Sewage which focusses on the Minworth plant is well worth a watch.

Minworth is a “state of the art” facility which strips waste out of sewage, recycles clean water back into the river system, and much more besides, including:

  • Sewage sludge recycled for agricultural use.
  • Biothermal energy; enough is generated to deliver nearly 40% of the plant’s energy needs.
  • Research into micro-organisms capable of replacing antibiotics in the fight against superbugs.

Conclusion

Amongst the Sustainable Development Goals, one of the goals that the UK government signed up to was SDG 6.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation

  • 6.3. Improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
  • 6.6. Protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

It would seem that the UK water industry is a long way from meeting those goals. If blame is due, many believe it sits firmly at the door of the privatised water companies who put profit before the maintenance of a clean environment and have not re-invested sufficiently to ensure that raw sewage is not simply dumped into our rivers almost as a default position.

Nor can the Environment Agency escape criticism for failing to hold water companies to account. Critics cite chronic underfunding of the agency, a lack of personnel and, crucially, a lack of political will. In the last six years they have brought just 48 prosecutions and whilst they secured fines amounting to £35 million it is clear from the BBC documentary, data from the Rivers Trust and others that many more illegal discharges are not being followed up or the offenders detected and prosecuted.

At the heart of the matter, however, is the fact that water has been turned into a commodity to be sold. There is plenty of profit in selling water to the public, much less it seems in cleaning up our waste.

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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