Investigation uncovers disgusting levels of sewage pumped into picturesque seaside town

  • ITV News report on the sewage spills and the impact on these on the environment

Pop star Feargal Sharkey warns that Britain's beloved beaches are "in peril" as campaigns warn of dangerous levels of pollution.

The singer-turned-environmental campaigner visited Whitstable which endured 202 sewage releases in the last year alone as activists say local businesses and marine wildlife are under threat, in an exclusive investigation for Good Morning Britain.

"Is it even legal?" SOS Whitstable asks - the answer is yes and no.

Sal Burtt-Jones, co-founder of SOS Whitstable said: "Is what they're doing legal? If you look at their permit, yes.

"However, if you go back to the Waste Water Treatment Act which says they can only release in exceptional circumstances, then they are absolutely not abiding by that law at all."

Ms Burtt-Jones added: "Of course, pumping out untreated sewage will have chemicals, microplastics, toxic waste which is killing local biodiversity - when actually Southern Water are walking away with thousands of pounds of salaries and bonuses."

It comes as the Environment Agency released data on the volume of sewage being discharged into our waters.

According to their data, raw sewage was spilt into English rivers 824 times a day last year, despite the fact, there was barely any rainfall and most of the country was in drought.

  • Watch Feargal Sharkey's report into sewage overflow in Whistable

Whitstable is one of Britain's most picturesque seaside towns and is hugely popular with holiday-goers.

It's been attracting hoards of visitors since the late 1800s.

Campaigners say local businesses and marine life are under threat after 202 sewage releases in Whitstable last year.

As a busy fishing port, Whitstable is famous for its oyster and its whelks but the sewage issues have created problems for the industry.

Terry Braine, farm manager at the Whitstable Oyster Trading Company, said: "We have times of the year when we cannot produce oysters and bring them to market.

"In 2021, we were closed over the summer months which is our busiest period so that's a large loss of sales for the company."

Mr Braine explained that the company has been forced to adapt its purification procedures for the oysters - usually, the process would take 48 hours, but now they have doubled their capacity to accommodate the increased need for cleansing.

It's not just businesses being affected. Local swimmers say they're worried about pollution in the sea where they swim.

  • Local swimmers Robin and Ben say they both become ill after swimming in the sea

Local swimmer Robin Bartlett said he and a friend went swimming and fell ill the next day.

He said: "There's a big swimming community and people thought the sea was safe."

Locals claim the sewage spills are not only damaging the environment but also the reputation of the town.

The Environment Agency has called for "urgent improvements" in storm overflow maintenance, management and investment by water companies.

Environment Agency Executive Director John Leyland said: “The decrease in spills in 2022 is largely down to dry weather, not water company action. 

“We want to see quicker progress from water companies on reducing spills and acting on monitoring data.

“We expect them to be fully across the detail of their networks and to maintain and invest in them to the high standard that the public expects and the regulator demands."

Complaints received by Southern Water were almost three times higher than the overall average. Credit: PA

The Southern Water data shows that in 2022:

  • The average number of spills per storm overflow was 17.8, compared to 20.2 in 2021.

  • The total number of monitored spill events in 2022 was 16,688, compared to 19,077 in 2021.

  • 0.7 of storm overflows spilt more than 100 times, compared to 2% in 2021. 

  • 19.6% of storm overflows did not spill at all, compared to 18.6% in 2021.

Toby Willison, Southern Water’s Director of Environment and Quality, said: “Today’s official Environment Agency data for 2022 shows a fall in overall storm overflow activity and we are already exceeding the government’s expectations for spills per overflow.

"However, we know this still isn’t good enough and are working extremely hard to drive down storm overflows. 

“Following the success of small-scale, innovative nature-based and engineering solutions which slow the flow of surface water into our sewer system, we are now looking to roll these out more widely over the next two years.

“Larger construction projects have also made a big difference, including a new 11km sewer pipe in Brighton, which along with two associated pumping stations and a wastewater treatment works, ensures that the 95 million litres of wastewater from Brighton and the surrounding areas in full treated.

“Our digital monitors now cover 98.5% of our outfalls and will hit 100% by this time next year. We will continue to report our progress in a transparent and open way.” 

Thames Water's headquarters in Reading. Credit: ITV News Meridian

The Thames Water data shows that in 2022:

  • The average number of spills per storm overflow was 17.0, compared to 31.9 in 2021.

  • The total number of monitored spill events was 8,014 in 2022 down from 14,713 in 2021.

  • 0.2% of storm overflows spilt more than 100 times, compared to 5% in 2021.

  • 19.9% of storm overflows did not spill at all, compared to 8.9% in 2021.

 A Thames Water spokesperson said: “We’re pleased to see the reduction of undiluted sewage discharges from our permitted sites in 2022. Some of this will have been driven by the dry weather we saw last year, and we know what matters most is stopping the need for discharges as quickly as possible.

“That’s why we’ve committed £1.6 billion of investment in our sewage treatment works and sewers over the next two years.

"This will help us to deliver our commitment to a 50% reduction in the total annual duration of discharges across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80% reduction in sensitive catchments.

“We have started the £100 million upgrade of Mogden sewage treatment works and we’re also currently increasing sewage treatment capacity at a number of our other sewage works across the Thames Valley, including Witney, Chesham and Fairford to be completed by 2025.

“We’re also the first company to provide live alerts for all untreated discharges throughout our region and this ‘near real-time’ data is available to customers as a map on our website and is also available through an open data platform for third parties, such as swimming and environmental groups, to use.

“We have a long way to go – and we certainly can’t do it on our own – but the ambition is clear.”

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