Government and water regulators 'may have broken law' over sewage dumping

The Office for Environmental Protection believes rules on sewage discharges may have been misinterpreted - ITV News' Rebecca Barry has the latest

The government and water regulators may have broken the law by allowing water companies to discharge sewage outside of exceptional circumstances, the UK's environment watchdog has found.

Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are only supposed to be used after periods of unusually heavy rain to prevent the system from backing up and flooding people’s homes and businesses with sewage.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat may have misinterpreted the law and allowed water companies to pollute England’s waterways outside of these circumstances, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) said.

Discharged sewage can harm wildlife and wider river ecosystems because chemicals entering the water – from pharmaceuticals to phosphates – are toxic or fuel the rapid growth of algae, which can choke out other forms of life by consuming all the oxygen.

Many people are unhappy about the amount of sewage being dumped. Credit: PA

It can also be a source of E. coli, which can cause diarrhoea, stomach cramps and fever when ingested by swimmers.

Sewage dumping has become a heavily politicised issue in recent months after images of large amounts of sewage being released into some of the UK's waterways outraged the public.

Water companies have come under intense criticism for underinvesting in their infrastructure for decades, leading to them being unable to properly manage increased use of their drainage systems or challenges presented by climate change.

This comes at a time when many water companies are heavily indebted and questions are being asked about the sometimes multimillion-pound compensation given to top executives.

Thames Water boss Sarah Bentley resigned in June with immediate effect as the company's debt problems mounted and questions were raised about her £1.6 million pay and perks she was awarded.

Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, has blamed government cuts to water company enforcement for what led to the OEP's investigation.

He said: "This scandal is the Conservatives’ fault. They cut back enforcement and monitoring of the water companies releasing this filth, and are now failing to prosecute them when they are blatantly breaking the law."

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said the OEP's findings was "environmental vandalism on an industrial scale."

He said: "This damning report shows the Conservatives have repeatedly let water companies off the hook for dumping their filthy sewage into our rivers, lakes and beaches."

Sewage dumping has become a hot political issue. Credit: PA

The OEP said it began its investigation after getting a complaint last June about the monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ management of sewage.

It has now sent information notices to all three public bodies setting out the details of the possible failures and to ask whether they agree and if so, how they propose to remedy them.

Helen Venn, the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, said: "The guidance provided by government to regulators, and the permitting regime they put in place for the water companies, possibly allow untreated sewage discharges to occur more regularly than intended by the law without risk of sanction.

"This is what has created the possible failures to comply that we have identified."

The OEP said its probe aims to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the public authorities and determine whether they have failed to comply with their duties.

If a failure is identified, the OEP will seek to improve regulation, it said.

A Defra spokesperson said: "The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable.

"That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it, driving forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement – and it’s why we are introducing a legally binding target to reduce storm overflows.

"While we do not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue."

The EA and Ofwat also have their own investigations into the water companies.

An Ofwat spokesperson said: "Our position at Ofwat remains clear – water companies’ performance on the environment is simply not good enough."

River Action’s chairman and founder, Charles Watson, has called the Government’s efforts to protect waterways “woefully inadequate”, following the OEP announcement.

He said: "It’s no surprise to us that the first enforcement action the OEP is pursuing against the Government over sewage pollution.

"We have known for years that Government action to protect our rivers is woefully inadequate."

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