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A campaign group is challenging the Information Blackout that Environment Agency imposed on its investigation into illegal sewage dumping in England.

After water companies disclosed to the agency that they may have been illegally releasing raw sewage from treatment facilities into streams and rivers, the agency began an inquiry.

This investigation involves more than 2000 water treatment plants, almost a third of all those in England. It is expected to involve most, if certainly all, water companies.

Fish Legal asked the agency in an environment information request for details about the treatment works under investigation, the time period being examined and whether the inquiry would result in delayed responses from the agency to pollution incidents.

However, the agency refused to disclose any details because it would cause adverse harm to its investigation. This despite strong public interest.

Penny Gane is the head of Fish Legal’s legal practice. She stated that Fish Legal wanted to keep the operation and the impacts of storm overflows from water companies secret.

EA investigations can take years in the past. After a seven year investigation by the agency, Southern Water was fined for dumping billions upon billions of litress of raw sewage in protected seas.

Gane stated that the imposition of a blackout on information related to sewage discharges would hurt campaign groups as well as the public who had highlighted the systemic abuses of permit conditions under the sewage treatment works must operate in the first instance.

The concern is that not much information will be shared over the years. People who have been looking at the damage caused by sewage releases will be unable continue their work, Gane said.

Fish Legal was contacted by the agency and they replied that they could not release the information because it would affect their ability under exemption 12(5)(b).

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The agency acknowledged that there was strong public interest and stated that it would make every effort to provide an update if necessary. However, the update would not compromise the confidentiality of its investigation process.

Fish Legal has challenged the refusal to release information, and requested that the agency reconsider their decision.

In a report they submitted on Thursday, MPs from the environmental audit committee stated that they were concerned by the scale of sewage discharges, large sprinklings and misreporting made by water companies. Prof Peter Hammond also provided evidence. He revealed that illegal sewage dumping at treatment plants could be much larger than reported to the agency. Hammonds information was obtained through requests made under the environmental information regulations for the EA and water companies.

Gane said that this is the type of information we fear won’t be released.

The Environment Agency declined to comment.

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