Hundreds of pipes in Wales ‘could be dumping sewage illegally’, investigation finds
Welsh Water has nearly two hundred discharge pipes across Wales which are potentially illegally dumping raw sewage into the country’s waterways, an investigation has found.
Using Environmental Information Regulation requests, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme found that Welsh Water has 184 sewage discharge pipes without permits, all of which are said to be in use.
Except in very limited circumstances, permits are required for firms to spill untreated sewage into rivers and seas during periods of high rainfall, to prevent sewers becoming overloaded and backing up into homes.
However, Welsh Water told the PA news agency it would be “fundamentally incorrect and simply untrue” to say it was “deliberately operating these assets illegally”.
The firm said the unpermitted Combined Storm Overflows (CSOs) were pinpointed following a detailed review which identified previously unknown assets from before the water industry was privatised.
It is working to secure the appropriate permits “as quickly as possible” and noted: “If these CSOs were prevented from operating during the permitting process, it would result in homes, schools and businesses flooding during heavy rain.”
The programmes also found that Severn Trent has 420 pipes without permits, although it said the company failed to specify how many were in operation.
The firm claimed Dispatches’ interpretation of the data was “not accurate” and said that permits can be “at varying stages of an administration process”.
There are more than 870 pipes across the UK which could be operating without permits, of which upwards of 200 are confirmed by water companies to be in use, according to Dispatches.
A whistleblower told the investigation that water companies are being left to investigate their own incidents as Environment Agency funds have been slashed.
Helen Nightingale, who has recently retired from the agency after 30 years, said: “The funding’s been cut massively… so we have fewer officers to go out and do the work.
“We are only supposed to attend the very serious or quite serious incidents. The lower impact incidents… environment officers are told not to attend them.
“We aren’t as aggressive. We don’t enforce to the same extent against water companies. Now water companies investigate their own incidents and tell us what category it is.”
It follows claims from Labour earlier this week that Liz Truss presided over “efficiency savings” during her time as environment secretary that significantly slashed funding for the Environment Agency and resulted in “doubled sewage discharge”.
The party’s analysis of official figures showed that between 2016 – when the Tory leadership frontrunner was in charge of Defra – and 2021, raw sewage discharge more than doubled, from 14.7 per overflow to 29.3.
This coincided with Ms Truss cutting £80 million of sewage monitors as part of a £235 million Tory axe to the Environment Agency’s budget.
As environment secretary, Ms Truss justified the cuts saying “there are ways we can make savings as a department” citing better use of technology and inter-agency working.
Dispatches said it was told by Severn Trent, Northumbrian Water and Welsh Water that the companies are working proactively with the Environment Agency to ensure the correct permits are in place for all storm overflows.
The Environment Agency told the programme: “Water companies have rightly been condemned for allowing far too many sewage spills and we are holding the industry to account on an unprecedented scale.”
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