The Environment Agency knew ten years ago that raw sewage was illegally dumped into English rivers from wastewater treatment plants, according to a leaked report.
However, the bureau’s chairman told MPs in May that the practice had only recently come to light.
The 2012 Northwest Region Environment Agency inspection report found that a number of United Utilities water utility sewage treatment plants discharged raw sewage into rivers while not processing the required amount of wastewater specified in their permits.
Water companies are only allowed to discharge untreated waste water into rivers, lakes and seas during exceptional rainfall and only if they already treat a certain amount of waste water, the so-called “flow to full treatment” (FtFT).
The report shows United Utilities has been fined £200,000 for FtFT-related breaches at the Cleator Sewerage Plants in Cumbria, where flow data showed that only 65% of the sewage needed was treated while raw sewage was dumped into the nearby river , and that “the storm overflow was deliberately placed at this lower level”.
It also shows that Environment Agency agents suspected that an additional 35 United Utilities works were discharging sewage while not treating the required amount of sewage. Officers conducted inspections at nine sites and found problems with FtFT at five works due to problems with flow meters and an Archimedes screw, along with “irregular readings” and “holes in flow data”.
Although the report was written in 2012, Environment Agency chairman Sir James Bevan told the House of Commons Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in May this year that “until recently we didn’t have very good data on what is happening at sewage treatment plants”.
Two studies into the practice are underway. In November, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that “several water companies had come forward” to say that “many of their sewage treatment plants may not comply”, and that the Environment Agency and Ofwat are both carrying out industry-wide investigations into dumping waste water.
Defra’s announcement came shortly after Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) campaigners released their analysis of water utility data showing that many works were dumping raw sewage in dry conditions and without treating enough sewage.
But Bevan told MPs on the committee that it was the Environment Agency’s insistence that water companies put monitors on their sewage treatment plants that prompted water companies to come forward and tell the agency the data would reveal non-compliance.
“And it was that understanding, which has frankly only reached us in the past 12 months, that led to the Environment Agency’s investigation … which appears to demonstrate significant and widespread infringements of … permits,” Bevan told MPs. .
An Environment Agency whistleblower said the report “highlights how common” the practice is.
“This was known in 2012 when self-regulation was pushed and water quality monitoring, staffing and regulation were drastically reduced,” she added. “The agency had the opportunity to prevent illegal wastewater discharges for more than 10 years, but chose not to, despite the funding available. They knowingly allowed the illegal activity to continue.”
A spokesman for the Environment Agency said the agency has significantly increased the control and transparency of water companies in recent years. In 2016, there were only 800 event duration monitors on storm surges, and now there are more than 12,000. This data enables us to hold the industry accountable on an unprecedented scale.”
But data on the duration of the event was not reliable. The government’s recently published plan to reduce wastewater discharges “is based on self-reporting of wastewater discharges by the water industry,” said Prof Peter Hammond, a former visiting scientist at the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology. But “close examination of the Environment Agency’s submissions suggests that water companies cannot be trusted to provide complete and accurate leakage data,” he said.
“The plan will fail unless the Environment Agency takes back control of all monitoring and drastically improves regulations,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said it recently requested detailed data from more than 2,200 wastewater treatment plants “as part of the largest investigation we’ve ever conducted into possible license violations – and if there’s evidence of non-compliance, we won’t hesitate.” to the relevant drinking water companies and take appropriate measures”.
“We continue to take tens of thousands of water quality samples every year as part of our work to keep rivers clean, and we are also investing more this year to further improve our approach to sampling – and we have a wide range of new requirements for water companies to improve their monitoring and significantly increase reporting so that this data is available to everyone.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on the time difference between the date of the leaked report and Bevan’s comments.
A United Utilities spokesperson said: “These would be serious allegations and we will have to investigate further.”
Ash Smith, the founder of Wasp, said the water industry has “based its business success on ‘sweating out the assets’ – not upgrading sewage works and dumping the wastewater it can’t treat into our rivers and seas, largely.” without interference from the Environment Agency.
“The industry has come to depend on this often illegal activity to make profits and bonuses and to do this the agency had to leave most of it unpunished and unchecked.”
Water companies told the Environment Agency that they dumped raw sewage into rivers and seas 372,544 times last year, over 2.6 million hours. However, the actual figure is believed to be much higher, due to underreporting.