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