English rivers are polluted by 'chemical cocktail' of sewage, MPs say

ITV News Wales and West of England Correspondent Rupert Evelyn outlines the damning findings

England's rivers contain a "chemical cocktail" of plastic, sewage and agriculture waste putting public health and nature at risk, the Environmental Audit Committee has said.

In a new report published on Thursday, the committee found that only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological status.

It added that it has been tricky to get a complete overview of the health of rivers due to “outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring” and until the passing of the Environment Act last year, there had been a “lack of political will” to improve water quality.

Michelle Walker, of The Rivers Trust, says the report is a wake up call

Some of the issues the group has raised includes river quality monitoring not identifying microplastics, persistent chemical pollutants or antimicrobial resistant pathogens flowing through rivers.

Other concerns the committee has include plants, invertebrates and fish being suffocated as a result of the build-up of high levels of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from sewage and animal waste and the extent of sewage discharge, misreporting and large spills by water companies. 

“This is a real wake up call, it really is a damning indictment of the status quo," Michelle Walker of the Rivers Trust told ITV News.

"We have - and government have - got to listen and start doing things differently.”

In its report, it added that fats, oils and greases, and cleaning and hygiene products containing plastic, are also causing problems for drainage systems – while single-use plastic hygiene products are clogging up drains and sewage works.

Its recommendations include urging for regulatory action, water company investment and collaboration to restore rivers to good ecological health.

What are the many causes of water pollution?

The committee says Ofwat should examine the powers it has to limit payment of bonuses to water company executives until the permit breaches cease and that the Environment Agency should consider creating an online platform where scientists can upload their data on water quality.

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Philip Dunne said: “Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality. For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.

“Today, we are calling for these relevant bodies to come together and develop a system fit for the future. Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be ramped up, and even public awareness needs boosting on what can and cannot be poured down drains or flushed down the toilet.

"So many emerging pollutants are being missed by inadequate and insufficient monitoring, and court actions against polluters have fallen dramatically.

“To deliver real change and improve the state of our rivers, a wide range of stakeholders must come together including the government, regulators and water companies.

"The Environment Act signalled the first welcome sign of political will to tackle this issue. I hope this marks the start of government regulatory and polluter action to improve the state of our rivers for all to enjoy.”

Philip Dunne, Conservative chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Credit: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the government welcomes the report and was going “further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of rivers and seas”.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The EA has launched a major investigation into possible unauthorised spills at thousands of sewage treatment works, secured fines of over £137 million since 2015 for pollution incidents and placed new requirements on water companies to significantly increase their monitoring and reporting so that everyone can see what is happening.

"We are also working with farmers to support environmentally friendly farming that doesn’t damage water quality.

“Everyone should understand the scale of the challenges and the investment needed to put things right. We welcome the EAC’s recommendations and will respond in due course.”