The environment watchdog prosecuted just four water companies for breaching an overflow permit between 2018 and 2022 despite hundreds of thousands of sewage spills over that period, according to official data.
Southern Water, Severn Trent, Anglian Water and Yorkshire Water were prosecuted by the Environment Agency and fined a total of just over £94mn in seven cases. A single fine levied against Southern Water accounted for £90mn of that total, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Financial Times.
The cases involved breaches of “storm overflow” permits, which allow waste water to be released from the sewerage system into rivers or the sea under certain circumstances, to prevent it from being overwhelmed.
The dearth of prosecutions comes against a backdrop of growing public anger over the volume of sewage polluting the UK’s waterways and seas, which has prompted fierce criticism of water companies and regulators. Water companies paid out £1.4bn in dividends last year, according to FT research.
In 2022 alone, 10 water and sewerage companies operating in England discharged sewage into rivers and the sea on 301,091 occasions.
Campaign groups say the EA is critically under-resourced and unable to hold companies to account for environmental offences.
“Environmental protection has been defunded” as a result of years of austerity measures, said Charles Watson, founder of River Action UK, a charity and campaigning group, this week. “We are dependent as the public and business on the regulators doing their job and they’re not.”
Rebecca Pow, a junior environment minister, said in March that the volume of sewage entering the UK’s waters was “unacceptable”.
Although many of last year’s more than 300,000 sewage spills were legal, there were 554 breaches of storm overflow permits in 2022, and more than 1,600 since 2020, according to government data, which did not disclose what penalties were imposed.
There were also at least 15 instances in 2022 when two water companies — Southern Water and Wessex Water — discharged sewage into the environment without a storm overflow permit, the data shows.
The EA said this week that polluting rivers was “unacceptable” and that it was “holding the water industry to account on a scale never seen before”.
Breaching a storm overflow permit can result in a range of penalties, including written warnings, prosecutions and “enforcement undertakings”, which are offers made by an offending company to remedy the problem and make a donation to charity.
Between June and December 2022, the EA accepted just one enforcement undertaking from a water company, Welsh Water, in relation to permit breaches at the company’s sewage treatment works.
Welsh Water agreed to pay £50,000 to the ecology charity the Wye and Usk Foundation. The company said it strived to “operate all of our assets in full compliance with their permits”.
In addition to the storm overflow rules, 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, according to government data.
Ofwat, the water industry regulator, has fined just one privatised utility for breaching regulations designed to prevent sewage spills in England since the rules came into force almost 30 years ago.
The regulator is now investigating six water companies over concerns that they might have breached sewage regulations, while the EA is looking into potentially illegal discharges at more than 2,000 sewage works.
Southern Water said it was “at the forefront of the industry in monitoring and self-reporting to the Environment Agency”. Applications at sites without permits “were submitted and are pending”.
Yorkshire Water said it operated “over 2,200 overflows across the region and whilst it is rare, sometimes things can go wrong and we’re unable to operate to the standards set out in the permit. If it does, we do everything we can to minimise the impact to the environment.”
Anglian Water and Severn Trent declined to comment.