Southern Water in court for polluting coastlines with raw sewage

  • ITV News Meridian's Tony Green reports from Canterbury Crown Court.

Southern Water is in court, having pleaded guilty to polluting the coasts of Kent and Sussex with untreated sewage. The Environment Agency has brought about the criminal prosecution and says it is the biggest case in its 25-year history. 

The case is in relation to 51 environmental offences from 16 Wastewater Treatment Works across the South Coast and 1 Sewer Overflow. The offences span a period of 6 years between the 1st of January 2010 and the 31st of December 2015.

Southern Water entered guilty pleas to all 51 offences on the 11th March 2020 at Maidstone Crown Court.

One of the the water treatment works the Environment Agency investigated. Credit: ITV News Meridian

This court case follows a lengthy investigation, called Operation Garden, that looked at five years worth of data from wastewater treatment works around the Swale.

The Environment Agency found untreated effluent was being pumped directly into the Swale and then out into the sea along the North Kent coast as far east as Herne Bay. 

That should only happen in the event of heavy rain and when there is too much water for a treatment plant to be able to deal with. But the Environment Agency found this was happening in dry weather.

7 of the 16 sites investigated are in the Swale Estuary and the North Kent coast. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Southern Water admitted breaching pollution laws in the form of the permits its given from the Environment Agency.  Claims the company are disputing includes how much harm the releases had on the local environment and how deliberate their actions were.

At Whitstable after a major spillage, oyster harvesting was voluntarily stopped and the Whitstable Oyster Company now has its own sampling regime that takes place each week.

At Swalecliffe alone, ITV News Meridian understands that Southern Water discharged 9.7 billion litres of untreated sewage.

The sites investigated in Hampshire. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Two years ago Southern Water agreed to pay out £126 million in payments and penalties after an investigation by Ofwat found failures in how the company ran its treatment works and deliberately misreporting its performance.

Today's court case has been brought about by Environment Agency and will focus on breaching the terms of its permits and the damage done to the environment. And as this is the largest ever Environment Agency investigation, it may result in a record fine as well.