The Environment Agency (EA) fined just four water companies for breaching an overflow permit that they used to dump sewage into rivers and the sea between 2018 and 2022 despite over 300,000 sewage spill incidents, the Financial Times has reported.
According to official data obtained through a Freedom of Information request submitted by the FT, the environment watchdog prosecuted Southern Water, Severn Trent, Anglian Water and Yorkshire Water over seven cases – amounting to a total fine of over £94m.
One fine against Southern Water accounted for the overwhelming majority – £90m.
The companies breached a special permit known as a ‘storm overflow’ permit, which allows waste water to be released from the sewerage system into rivers or the sea under certain circumstances, to prevent it being overwhelmed.
Last year, there were over 300,000 instances of sewage spills. Whilst many of these were legal, there were 554 breaches of ‘storm overflow’ permits.
Southern Water and Wessex Water together discharged sewage without using a storm overflow permit at least 15 times last year.
The EA said this week that polluting rivers is “unacceptable” and that it is “holding the water industry to account on a scale never seen before”.
Southern Water said it was “at the forefront of the industry in monitoring and self-reporting to the Environment Agency”.
Yorkshire Water said it operated “sometimes things can go wrong [and] if it does, we do everything we can to minimise the impact to the environment.”
Anglian Water and Severn Trent declined to comment to the FT.
In the wake of an ongoing public scandal, earlier this month Water UK, the industry membership body, announced plans for a transformation scheme dubbed the National Overflows Plan, with a tripling of funding from current levels.
Water UK chairman Ruth Kelly then said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry.
“More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.”
Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, said he welcomed the commitments made by Water UK.
“Now we want to see action and a clear plan for delivery. The Environment Agency will be working closely with them to ensure this happens,” he said.