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Water firms accused of ‘scandalous cover-up’ over sewage volume data

10 Aug 2023 3 minute read
Raw sewage. Effluent discharge pipe.

Water firms have been accused of a “scandalous cover-up” after being unable to show much sewage they are pumping into rivers and seas.

The Liberal Democrats said they had tried to find out the volume of pollution through Environment Information Regulations – similar to a freedom of information request – but were told that information did not exist.

A parliamentary committee last year found more than two billion litres of raw sewage had been dumped into the River Thames over two days following a storm.

Despite this, Thames Water told the Lib Dems that it “does not record the volume of wastewater discharged into the environment via storm overflows”.

Other companies across England and Wales said the monitors they used only measured frequency and duration of spills, not volume.

Six of these companies now face legal action for allegedly misleading the Environment Agency and Ofwat about the number of times they had discharged sewage, meaning they may have overcharged customers.

Water UK has said these claims were “entirely without merit”.

Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water) released sewage into rivers, lakes and the sea around Wales for almost 600,000 hours last year, data released in April revealed.

Last month the not-for-profit company was downgraded by environment watchdog National Resources Wales over sewage pollution.

Scottish Water, which is publicly owned, does record and publish volume data, but only a small proportion of their discharges are monitored.

In Northern Ireland, sewage discharges are not routinely monitored and the last time information was released was in late 2021 in response to a question tabled in Stormont.

The Lib Dems believe that water firms in England and Wales are either not telling the truth about holding volume data or the monitors they have installed are inadequate.

They said previous requests for information found nearly a quarter of monitors were faulty or had not been fitted throughout 2021 and 2022.

Cover up

The party’s environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “These water firms could be guilty of a scandalous cover-up.

“We have no idea how many billions of litres of sewage are being pumped into our precious rivers and lakes.

“The true extent of environmental damage caused by this scandal is completely unknown. We don’t even know how much sewage is being pumped into bathing areas and shellfish water.”

A recent investigation by the Marine Conservation Society discovered around 6,000 emergency overflows – separate from the storm overflows water companies typically monitor – were not being recorded.

Emergency overflows are only supposed to be used in critical situations, such as if there is an electrical failure at a pumping station.

Over 90% of them are not monitored either for volume, duration or frequency. Water companies are required to monitor only those that have the potential to discharge into shellfish waters.

Mr Farron said: “Either these firms are withholding data from the public, which would be an extremely serious offence, or they just aren’t bothering to fit proper sewage monitors.

“Ministers need to get tougher on these water firms by demanding they fit proper sewage monitors which are up to the job.

“The Government is letting water firms get away with faulty and flawed monitors.”

Water UK and Thames Water have been contacted for comment.

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Linda Jones
Linda Jones
11 months ago

Shameful. Surely the monitoring and recording of the amount of sewerage going into our rivers and lakes should be a basic requirement. Water companies are yet another example of how the privatisation of public services does not work. Profits are extracted in huge amounts while the services are inadequate or worse.

11 months ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

Something like 98.5% of DCWW discharging assets are monitored. It’s the other water companies that actually have no idea how much they are pumping out.

11 months ago

If legal action is taken against offending water companies and they are heavily penalised who do you think will end up footing the cost of the fine? ……….. Joe Public of course. They will pass on the cost to us by increasing prices. It’s time to start fining individuals rather than companies. What happens here in the UK? They get bonuses instead.

Catherine Hodgkinson
Catherine Hodgkinson
11 months ago

I can’t help feeling that the sewage problem is symbolic of the whole state of the country

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