Unlimited Fines For Illegal Sewage Discharges?

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The government has announced that it is keen to lift the £250,000 cap for penalties relating to illegal sewage discharges into rivers and the sea carried out by water companies, part of plans to “make polluters pay” that will include all sources of pollution, everything from sewage to plastics and chemicals.


Water suppliers are permitted to discharge untreated sewage into waterways in some circumstances, such as during periods of intense and heavy rainfall. The system has worked in this way since the Victorians built the pipe network, with the aim being to serve as a public health intervention and tackle water-borne disease like cholera.


The network was designed as a combined system, with sewage and rainwater taken to treatment works before being transferred to the point of discharge. Over the years, this system has been developed and extended in line with increasing urbanisation and population growth… and it now has more sewage and surface water runoff to deal with than ever before.


Part of the problem is that, with all this added pressure on the system, there is an increased risk of overwhelming the sewers, which sees the network start to back up and sewage flooding homes and other properties as a result.


To help tackle this problem, combined sewer overflows are used during heavy rain, which increases the amount of surface water entering the system. The idea is to discharge this excess water back into the natural water environment, with the extra water flow supposedly diluting the pollution load to lessen the impact on the environment.


While this is legally permissible, it still puts both human health and natural ecosystems at risk. Official figures show that there were an average of 825 of these sewage discharges each day in waterways around England in 2022, according to the BBC… and part of the problem seems to be that water suppliers are now pumping sewage into watercourses even when the conditions are dry, or without treating the waste sufficiently prior to release.


As part of their plans to make polluters more culpable for their actions, ministers are also keen to ensure that any money taken from fines will be used to directly benefit the nation’s water resources.


Therese Coffey, environment secretary, was quoted by the news source as saying that she would be “making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed”.


At the moment, these funds go straight to the Treasury, but under the new plans the money will instead be funnelled to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, straight into a Water Restoration Fund.


Ms Coffey is also keen for the Environment Agency to have the powers to impose sanctions without having to enter into court proceedings, although it’s likely that more serious cases will still need to go down this route.


In a statement, she went on to say: “I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules and to do so more quickly.”


The newly established fund will be used to help with wetland restoration, as well as creating new habitats in nature sites and improving river management strategies.


Will water bills increase?


The root cause of the sewage problem in the UK is widely acknowledged as being down to insufficient investment in the drains and treatment plants required to manage the demands of a growing population, as well as the pressure being put on the system through more frequent and extreme storm events (which will only increase as a result of climate change).


A new report from the House of Lords, released back in March, has suggested that stopping sewage discharges into rivers and the sea will necessitate a vast amount of infrastructure investment, which will likely have the knock-on effect of pushing water bills up.


One popular solution is creating a system that manages wastewater and rainwater separately, so there’s no need for them to both be transferred to the same place for treatment.


However, there are varying estimates regarding the overall cost of updating the network in this way, with the report observing that it could be anything from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of pounds over the course of several decades.


Last year’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan from the government intends to compel water suppliers to invest £56 billion in the network over the coming 25 years, but the costs of this will almost certainly be passed down to customers. As such, the report has recommended that a social tariff be set up to help those unable to pay the higher rates.


The report also called for industry regulator Ofwat to ensure greater transparency from water companies. As it stands right now, companies do not have to provide full and comprehensive information on what discharges are released, nor on when or how much.


They do release data on how many hours the storm overflows are open each year, but there is no routine monitoring of the volume of outflow, the contents or the quality of the majority of waterways in the UK.


Commenting on the publication, Lord Cromwell – member of the House of Lords INdustry and Regulators Committee, which published the report – said: “For decades, the focus has always been on supplying cheap good quality water to the population. The environmental objectives have not been focused on. It’s going to be hugely expensive to put this right.”


Do you want to switch water supplier to see if you can bring your bills down and start operating more efficiently? Get in touch with the H2o Building Services team today to see how we can help.