After admitting to illegally releasing untreated sewage into rivers or waterways, water companies are now the subject of a major investigation by environmental and financial watchdogs.
Ofwat and the Environment Agency stated that they had started an investigation into sewage treatment plants after new checks led them to admit the water companies.
This investigation will include more than 2000 sewage treatment works, almost a quarter of the total in England and Wales. Any company that breaches their legal permits could be subject to enforcement action including fines or prosecutions. For civil cases, fines can reach 10% of the annual turnover and for criminal proceedings, they can be unlimited.
Ofwat stated that it demanded water companies to disclose the scale of illegal sewage releases from their treatment plants, their reasons for occurring, and what role their board played in monitoring and scrutinising such illegal spillages.
The financial regulator is also asking water companies’ boards to explain how compliance and environmental performance were taken into consideration when they decide on executive bonuses and dividends.
The nine English water companies have paid shareholders 16.9 billion in dividends over the past 11 years. This is an average annual amount of 1.4bn according to David Hall of the Public Services International Research Unit, University of Greenwich.
Emma Howard Boyd is the chairperson of Environment Agency. Water companies that violate their permits are illegally acting.
This is a significant issue in public trust. Each year, water company boards must confirm that they have the resources necessary to carry out their regulated activities.
Companies have only now raised concerns about potential problems just before new monitors were installed. The EA is currently investigating more than 2,000 sewage treatment plants and will pursue any charges if necessary.
Howard Boyd stated that the private The sector was being pressured to make concrete commitments to protecting the environment. This investigation comes after Southern Water received a record 90m penalty for illegally dumping billions of litres raw sewage into waterways. The sentencing judge asked for more scrutiny by the boards of water companies to look into environmental breaches by firms.
Southern is currently facing a rate-payer revolt due to its continued releases storm overflows of untreated sewerage.
Richard Benwell, CEO Wildlife and Countryside Link, stated that the crackdown against illegal sewage dumping was welcomed. He added that: Too long, poor monitoring for sewage overflow permits was a get out from jail card for some water corporations to pollute with impunity.
Inaction, under-reporting and failure to comply statutory duties to reduce harm our rivers and wildlife are unacceptable. They are incompatible with stopping nature’s decline by 2030.
He stated that the government should ensure that the EA has all legal and financial options available to ensure that corporate environment crime is not overlooked.
The EA claimed that it had discovered illegal spillages at sewage treatment plant septic tanks as a result a series of inspections. Many water companies discovered that their sewage treatment plants may not comply with permits to release raw wastewater in exceptional circumstances.
Martin Salter is the head of policy at Angling Trust. He said that it was about time that we started to see action, rather than just words. But there’s still much to do. We need stronger regulation via a properly funded Environment Agency. We also need to see OFWAT placed with new, strong obligations to release funds for the rehabilitation and upgrading of our crumbling wastewater infrastructure.
The government must take the initiative and ensure that its forthcoming water strategic policy statement will be a catalyst for action to eliminate pollution.
After revelations in Guardian about the extent of raw sewage releases, the investigation is now under way. Analysis presented to MPs showed that illegal spillages by water companies were 10 times greater than what they reported to EA.