The latest annual report from the Environment Agency has shown that water companies’ serious pollution incidents increased to the highest amount since 2013.
An increase in serious pollution incidents
The complicated ongoing story on UK water utilities' pollution incidents has taken another turn as the industry regulator, the Environment Agency (EA), has sent a strong warning to water company bosses.
Its latest annual environmental performance report for water companies stated that the data is the "worst we have seen for years". This included serious pollution incidents increasing to 62 in 2021, the highest total since 2013.
Performance expectations for the water companies between 2020 to 2025 were set out in WISER (Water Industry Strategic Environmental Requirements). Water companies were required to consider these when developing their business plans for the AMP7 period, 2020 to 2025.
The report focuses on the nine water and sewerage companies in England, measured against the EA’s Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA) rating, which goes up to four.
Calling for “prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”, the EA said that "water companies will only stop behaving like this if they are forced to".
Southern Water and South West Water were given just a one star rating, while four companies were rated only two stars - meaning they require significant improvement.
Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities performed more positively and maintained four stars.
The data follows a damning parliamentary report that revealed most rivers in England are polluted to some degree.
A call for more carrot than stick
In response to its annual EPA report, the EA called for courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents.
“Although the amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, the fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary,” it said.
The regulator also said company directors should be “struck off” so they cannot “simply move on in their careers after illegal environmental damage”.
Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the EA, said: “It’s appalling that water companies’ performance on pollution has hit a new low. Water quality won’t improve until water companies get a grip on their operational performance. For years people have seen executives and investors handsomely rewarded while the environment pays the price.”
Since 2015 the Environment Agency’s prosecutions against water companies have secured fines of over £138 million.
“Our single biggest priority”
Responding to the EA’s annual report, Christine McGourty (pictured above), chief executive of Water UK, said: "This year's results show that, overall, the industry must do better. Although there were companies that demonstrated excellent performance, the total number of serious pollution incidents was too high, bucking the recent trend of year-on-year improvements.
“Tackling this is our single biggest priority, and every company has a comprehensive plan in place to make that happen.”
She added: "Last year, the majority of companies achieved the highest possible rating from the Environment Agency, on the back of the lowest number of serious pollution incidents ever. We need to see an urgent return to those kind of results, with every company matching the performance of the best."
As previously covered by Aquatech Online, there has been a continuous call from the water industry for increased monitoring to help address the challenge.
There are over 17,000 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) where sewage and rainwater can be discharged after heavy rainfall. It’s estimated that by the end of 2019, water and wastewater companies were monitoring 7,762 of them.
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- Addressing the CSO challange to water quality
- Lila Thomson: Now is the time to create healthier rivers