According to a leaked internal document, the England’s Environment Agency told its staff to ignore low-impact pollution reports because it doesn’t have enough money.
The ruling on so-called Category 3 and 4 incidents means that certain events, such as farm pollution or hazardous dumps by businesses, may not be properly investigated. River groups and non-governmental organizations are angry at the decision.
A November Environment Agency briefing was sent to staff and seen by Guardian and Ends Report. It stated that there is support from the leadership for no response to unfunded low and no-impact environmental incidents (also known as category 3 or 4 incidents).
Leaked documents also reveal frustration at ministers and lack of funding for its work. According to the document, the EAs leadership team made it clear that government will only pay for the environment they want.
The exceptions to the rule are pollution incidents that are caused by a regulated location or a water company. However, the briefing does not explain how it will determine if an incident is not attended or investigated.
The agency’s briefing stated that ignoring the large number of pollution reports that are submitted each year will bring benefits. These include a reduction in overall effort for incidents that pose the least risk to the environment, increased effort in charge-funded regulation, increased effort to prioritize higher-risk incidents and increased consistency in response and service to customers.
A presentation by Environment Agency, which was also seen by The Guardian, explains that the agency currently responds to more then 70,000 incidents per year and the number is increasing.
Data from the agency’s National Incident Recording System reveals that 116,000 potential incidents were filed to the agency in 2021. However, only 8,000 of these incidents were attended. This is a decrease from the 12,000 reported incidents in 2016, which saw 74,000 potential incidents.
The presentation deck states that we cannot continue trying to do things we don’t have the funds for. This is a difficult situation. The pressure on incident responders is increasing, which is affecting staff resilience as well as wellbeing.
If staff are informed of a category 3-4 incident that is not related to a water company, regulated site, or water company, they are told not to substantiate the report, call site, or add any details. Shut down the incident report. In anticipation of complaints, template reply letters were created for agency staff.
One Environment Agency officer, who declined to be identified because staff were warned not to speak to the media, stated that many category 2 incidents begin as 3s until they get attended. An example of a Category 3 incident could be a 2km oil or sewage spillage in a river.
Another officer, who also wanted to remain anonymous, stated that it would be impossible for them to determine the extent of the incident without going to it. They said that the EA’s response to pollution has been declining for some time and that unless there were dead fish floating around, an incident would not have been attended to by the agency.
According to the agency’s customer service commitment, it was forced to reduce its budget for responding environmental incidents last year. It will also no longer provide feedback on any actions taken to address pollution events.
This follows years of cuts to grant-in-aid for the agency. The government did give the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (Defra), and its agencies an additional 4.3bn during the October 2021 spending review. This year, an overview of the settlement by Environment Agency is due.
The chief executive of Rivers Trust Mark Lloyd called the move an abominable scandal. While pollution incidents of Category 1 and 2, have a significant impact on the environment in many ways, they are just the tip. He said that the vast majority of incidents fall into lower categories and are what causes rivers to die by a thousand cuts.
Lloyd stated that the agency required the resources and political backing to take tough action in all cases. This is necessary if we want to restore the health of our rivers for the next generation.
According to Penny Gane (Fish Legals head for practice), ignoring pollution incidents can lead people to stop reporting them.
She said that many of our members stopped reporting pollution incidents a while back because they didn’t feel the agency was interested. Any further drop in reporting will paint a far more positive picture than the reality about our rivers’ declining condition, and it will be difficult for the agency to make a case for funding.
Gane is also concerned at the management of the reduction in response times. Without being present at an incident, how can they know if it is caused by a regulated location or a water company. In practice, they are referring to agricultural pollution, which is the main threat and reason for water-body problems in England, according to the Environment Agency.
Feargal Sharkey, river campaigner, views the move as more cynical. The fact that the Environment Agency has reduced its staff to nothing but political pawns in Whitehall politics is an obscenity. He said it was unwarranted, unjust, and incompetent.
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency stated that they focus their incident response efforts on the pollution incidents that pose the greatest threat to the environment.
Our incident triage program is focused on how to best use our resources and maximize benefits for the environment. While we are still able to attend the most serious incidents we also focus our efforts on regulatory activities that prevent such incidents from ever happening. Our environment protection work is aided by the intelligence gained from incident reporting.
A spokesperson for Defra stated that the government recognizes the importance to protect the nation’s natural environment and is investing accordingly.
Defra, along with its agencies, received an additional 4.3bn as part of the October 2022 spending review. This allows us to do more for climate change mitigation and protection of our environment for future generations. The Environment Agency plays a significant role in this field and will continue to seek to hold those responsible.