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England’s environmental watchdog said on Tuesday it had identified “possible failures” by the government and two regulators in the way they monitor and enforce water companies’ handling of sewage spills.
The findings by the Office for Environmental Protection follow a year-long investigation as public anger has grown over the amount of raw sewage being pumped into rivers and coastal waters by water companies.
By law, the discharge of untreated effluent directly into waterways is only allowed under “exceptional circumstances” such as heavy rain. But the watchdog said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, the water industry regulator, “may have interpreted the law differently, permitting such discharges to occur more often”.
Academics from Imperial College London and campaign groups have collected evidence that suggests some water companies have pumped raw sewage into coastal waters and rivers even during dry periods.
The OEP, which launched the probe after a complaint by the campaign group Wildfish, has given the government and regulators two months to respond to its findings and outline what steps, if any, they plan to take.
This is thought to be the first time the agency, which was set up post-Brexit to replace some of the oversight functions of the European Commission in Brussels, has used its powers. The watchdog can ultimately take legal action to enforce compliance.
Guy Linley-Adams, WildFish’s in-house solicitor, said: “Let’s be quite clear here. Those three public bodies are complicit in allowing the pollution. That must now end.”
The government said that it disagreed with the OEP’s “initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades” but it said it would continue to “work constructively” on the issue with the watchdog.
The Environment Agency said it shared the OEP’s “ambition to drive improvements in water quality”, adding: “We will always take action against companies that do not follow the rules or those that are deliberately obstructive.”
Ofwat said: “We welcome the OEP’s considerations, particularly on the clarity of responsibilities for the protection of the environment and we will work with them as their investigation moves forward.”
The intervention comes as water companies face several legal cases and regulatory investigations into sewage outflows.
The Environment Agency last year launched a criminal investigation into companies’ compliance with discharge permits at sewage treatment works. Ofwat also has a separate investigation into the management of sewage treatment works, which could result in hefty fines. Neither investigation has yet been concluded.