Government accused of illegally allowing sewage discharges in UK waterways to ‘occur more often’

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Ofwat, Defra and the Environment Agency have two months to respond to Information Notices that they have breached environmental laws

The government and its regulators have been accused of breaching environmental laws, allowing sewage discharges to occur “more often” and interpreting legislation “differently”.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has identified possible failures to comply with environmental law by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and Ofwat in relation to the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

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Sewage discharges are allowed to be released from CSOs in exceptional circumstances, such as during unusually heavy rainfall, to stop sewage backing up into people’s homes when the sewage network is overloaded.

But, Helen Venn, the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, said it appears that “the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently, permitting such discharges to occur more often”.

Ms Venn added: “This then has consequences for the regulatory activity that follows. The guidance provided by government to regulators, and the permitting regime they put in place for the water companies, possibly allow untreated sewage discharges to occur more regularly than intended by the law without risk of sanction.”

Government accused of illegally allowing sewage spills to ‘occur more often’. (Photo: Getty Images) Government accused of illegally allowing sewage spills to ‘occur more often’. (Photo: Getty Images)
Government accused of illegally allowing sewage spills to ‘occur more often’. (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

The OEP launched an investigation into the regulation of CSOs by the three public authorities in June last year after it received a complaint alleging failures to comply with legal duties relating to the monitoring the management of sewage.

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As a result of information gathered during the investigation, the OEP has issued Information Notices to Defra, Ofwat and the Environment Agency setting out the details of those possible failures.

The public authorities have two months to respond to the Information Notices.

The responses will allow them to set out whether they agree with the OEP’s view, and whether they agree or not, set out any proposed remedial action or practical measures to address issues.

A Defra spokesperson said it “does not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades” but it will “continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”

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An Ofwat spokesperson said it “welcomes” 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 spokesperson added: “Our position at Ofwat remains clear, water companies’ performance on the environment is simply not good enough. We have pushed companies to take urgent action to cut sewage discharges, have imposed fines of £250m in the last few years alone and we are currently running our biggest ever investigation into six companies on how they manage sewage treatment works and sewage discharges.”

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