Anglian Water is under investigation for potentially releasing sewage illegally into the River Wensum in Norwich.
Environment Agency (EA) officers confirmed they are investigating the water firm after identifying four spills into the river while working through 2020 data. These spills could have been potential breaches of permits involving storm overflows, the agency said.
Rachel Storr, from the EA, told Norfolk County Council at a meeting on Wednesday (22 March) that it had found “potential non-compliances” and that it is “still under investigation.”
She added that Anglian Water will be asked to provide information as part of the investigation and the agency could take enforcement action if appropriate.
The backlog for the following years is still being analysed and this could still spot further breaches.
A Norfolk councillor said any enforcement action is “taking a long time” and it is “not acceptable”.
Permits allow water companies to use storm overflows in certain conditions when there is too much water in pipes such as after heavy rain to stop it backing up into people’s homes, but it is illegal to use them at other times, for example where it is dry weather.
‘It’s not acceptable’
Green county councillor Jamie Osborn raised the issue of sewage spills in the River Wensum during the meeting and said the situation as "not acceptable".
He said: "In the Wensum, in a short two-mile stretch, in 2019/20, there were more than 1,000 spills, lasting more than 16,000 hours. That is equivalent to two years worth of constant sewage outpouring into the river.
"I don’t think it’s acceptable that this is happening and it’s taking a long time to get any enforcement action."
Ms Storr responded by saying the workload of the Environment Agency “has increased” after Anglian Water now submits data annually.
She said: “Anglian Water for 2021 data had 195,000 hours of storm overflows over 745 sites across Anglian Water’s area and a handful of people at the Environment Agency looking at this data. So we needed to come up with a process that enabled us to focus on what we considered to be the highest risk out of these overflows.
“The majority of these overflows will be legal so what we need to do is pick out the illegal overflows.”
She added that the agency did identify “potential non-compliances” in the River Wensum.
Mr Osborn said he didn’t understand how it could be legal when residents have tested the river themselves and found levels of e-collide above the legal limit.
Dr Robin Price, from Anglian Water, said the company was aware of data from the River Wensum, which suggested a high number of spills.
He says the company had verified it and it appeared to be a "data issue", rather than "genuine spills". He added that Anglian Water would "cooperate fully" with the Environment Agency over the investigation.