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The Guardian views on water pollution: Come clean about sewage| Editorial

The Guardian views on water pollution: Come clean about sewage| Editorial

English water companies are used to dumping raw sewage into rivers and the sea. The Environment Agency and Ofwat launched an investigation last year to find out the truth. There are alarming signs that this chance to shine a spotlight is being missed. The Environment Agency’s refusal to disclose the location of the 2,000 sewage treatment plants in England is a sign of its unwillingness to be transparent. It also raises questions about the agency’s commitment to transparency.

The campaigners’ efforts are responsible for the fact that the investigation is taking place at all. Concern over sewage dumps is growing as a result of water companies failing to address a long-standing problem that has been getting worse due to climate change. To reduce flood risk, untreated waste should never be discharged into the ocean or rivers. In recent years, it has become evident that rules are routinely being flouted in an industry that puts profit before environmental stewardship. Despite this, the Environment Agency’s record of reprimanding breaches has declined sharply due to budget cuts. A report last week by a committee composed of MPs called for changes to improve the river condition.

Southern Water was fined an unprecedented 90m last summer for dumping between 16bn-21bn litres (raw sewage) into protected coastal waters in order to gain financial gain. It was the worst environmental crime in Environment Agency’s 25 year history. The House of Commons did not impose a legal obligation on water companies to stop releasing raw wastewater last year, as ministers rejected a Lords amendment. The nine privatised water corporations, which are regional monopolies and are subject to a progressive reduction in the amount they pollute. The Environment Agency’s refusal to provide information to Fish Legal suggests that the agency is unwilling to hold the industry accountable.

Southern Water is not the only company with a similar repulsive track-record. But the problem is systemic, and cannot be blamed solely on one board of directors. Over the last 11 years, water company shareholders have received 16.9bn in dividends. However, debt has soared up to 48bn. Bosses are rewarded when they fail: Liv Garfield (chief executive of Severn Trent) was awarded 2020 Bonuses: 1.9m, a year in which the company Untreated waste was poured into waterwaysOn almost 61,000 occasions.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Scottish Water, which is owned by the public, charges less and has invested 35% more per household in infrastructure improvements to limit pollution since 2002 than English water companies. Welsh Water is also a non-profit. Renationalization is the obvious choice given the poor track record in English industry. In the short-term, the bodies responsible for water regulation should be more assertive. A Five-year planOfwat, which is expected to be soon, must place much more emphasis on environmental protection. The public must be informed about the failures of water companies when they are contacting Ofwat.

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