Despite 300,000 instances of sewage spills, the regulatory body has levied fines on only four firms.

The regulatory authority for the environment took legal action against merely four water companies for overstepping their overflow permits from 2018 to 2022, despite the occurrence of hundreds of thousands of sewage spills during this period, as per official records.

Southern Water, Severn Trent, Anglian Water, and Yorkshire Water were the subjects of legal proceedings by the Environment Agency, resulting in a cumulative penalty of a little over £94 million across seven instances. Southern Water bore the brunt of these fines, accounting for £90 million alone, as revealed by the data accessed through a Freedom of Information request filed by the Financial Times.

The violations involved infringing “storm overflow” permits, which allow for the release of wastewater into rivers or seas under specific conditions, in order to protect the sewerage system from overload.

Amidst the scarcity of legal actions, there is an escalating public outrage over the magnitude of sewage contaminating the UK’s water bodies. This has led to the stern reproach of water companies and regulatory bodies. Last year, water companies doled out dividends worth £1.4 billion, as per an FT study.

In 2022, a total of 10 water and sewerage companies operating in England released sewage into rivers in 301,091 separate instances.

According to advocacy groups, the Environment Agency (EA) is critically lacking in resources, thereby failing to hold corporations accountable for environmental transgressions.

“Funding for environmental protection has been diminished due to years of austerity measures,” Charles Watson, founder of River Action UK, a charity and advocacy group, stated this week. “The public and businesses rely on the regulators to fulfil their responsibilities, and they’re falling short.”

Junior environment minister Rebecca Pow stated in March that the amount of sewage entering UK waters was “intolerable.”

Despite a majority of the 300,000+ sewage spills last year being legal, there were 554 violations of storm overflow permits in 2022, and over 1,600 since 2020, as per government records, which did not detail the penalties levied.

In 2022, there were at least 15 instances when Southern Water and Wessex Water released sewage without a storm overflow permit, as indicated by the data.

The EA announced this week that contaminating rivers was “intolerable” and that it was “holding the water industry accountable on a level never before witnessed.”

Breaching a storm overflow permit can attract several penalties, including written warnings, prosecutions, and “enforcement undertakings,” which are promises made by the offending company to rectify the problem and contribute to a charity.

From June to December 2022, the EA accepted only one enforcement undertaking from Welsh Water, regarding permit breaches at the company’s sewage treatment plant.

Welsh Water pledged £50,000 to the Wye and Usk Foundation, an ecology charity, and stated that it aims to “operate all our assets in full compliance with their permits.”

Apart from the storm overflow regulations, companies can be prosecuted for sewage spills under the “water discharge activities” regulations. Between 2018 and 2022, three water companies were prosecuted by the EA for breaching water discharge permits by spilling sewage, as per government data.

Ofwat, the water industry regulator, has fined only one privatized utility for violating regulations designed to prevent sewage spills in England since the rules were implemented nearly three decades ago.

The regulator is currently examining six water companies due to suspicions that they may have violated sewage regulations, while the EA is investigating potentially unlawful discharges at over 2,000 sewage treatment plants.

Southern Water stated that it was “leading the industry in monitoring and self-reporting to the Environment Agency”. Applications at sites without permits “were submitted and are pending”.

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