Pollution: water companies prosecuted hundreds of times for environmental crime

A leading marine conservation charity has said the water industry needs systematic change to stop the pollution at source after record-breaking fines.

England’s water industry is the country’s biggest culprit for corporate environmental crimes, with careless companies fined millions of pounds for polluting waterways.

Exclusive analysis by NationalWorld reveals businesses in the water industry, including suppliers of drinking water and sewage treatment works, have been prosecuted almost 600 times in the last 20 years – more than any other industry.

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Water companies in England and Scotland have been fined millions by watch dogs in the last 20 years. Image: Shutterstock
Water companies in England and Scotland have been fined millions by watch dogs in the last 20 years. Image: Shutterstock

Water companies say they are learning from past mistakes and claim to take their environmental responsibility "very seriously".

However a recent record-breaking fine by the Environment Agency suggests that the link between water companies and environmental crime is still very much prevalent.

Hundreds of prosecutions and multi-million pound fines

NationalWorld exclusively revealed yesterday (13 July) that prosecutions for environmental crime in England and Scotland had fallen off a cliff edge, prompting concerns that budget cuts have left regulators toothless in the fight against pollution.

Water pollution can have a catastrophic impact on the environment. Image: Shutterstock

New analysis can now reveal that 29 companies working in the water treatment, distribution and sewage industries in England – including dedicated water companies and engineering firms contracted by them for projects – were prosecuted 594 times between January 2000 and May 2020 by the Environment Agency.

These prosecutions, which involved 943 separate charges for various environmental crimes, led to fines totalling £45.2 million. The fines do not include costs awarded to the Environment Agency or any other fines accrued for non-environmental charges, such as dedicated health and safety offences.

Figures obtained from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) through an Environmental Information Regulations request paint a similar picture in Scotland.

Water authorities there have been prosecuted 88 times since 2000, resulting in fines of more than £431,000.

103 charges were based on incidents causing major, serious, persistent or extensive impact or effect on the environment, people or property in England. Image: Shutterstock

Major and significant environmental harm

NationalWorld can also reveal the extent of the damage done to water as a result of the incidents in England. Each individual charge in England is categorised by the extent of harm caused to water, air, or land environments. A single charge could involve multiple harm categories. For the 943 charges since January 2020, there were almost 860 harm categorisations included relating to water. Of these:

- 103 charges were based on incidents causing major, serious, persistent or extensive impact or effect on the environment, people or property

- 309 had a significant impact

- 115 had a minor or minimal impact

- 333 were substantiated incidents with no impact

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A landmark case and historic penalties

While the analysis does not include prosecutions made after May 2020, Southern Water was notably fined last week (9 July) by the Environment Agency – a record £90 million – after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage which polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

It is the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history and caused major environmental harm to shellfish waters.

This landmark case, as well as the other historical prosecutions, highlight a concerning trend between water companies and environmental crime.

‘We need systematic change in the water industry’

Water pollution is a nationwide issue and earlier this week, NationalWorld exposed the plight of Ilkley residents in West Yorkshire who discovered raw sewage was being dumped into the River Wharfe.

Residents successfully campaigned to secure official bathing status for their river – a UK first – to force the Environment Agency to carry out regular tests of the E-coli infected waters.

NationalWorld’s findings have been slammed by leading marine conservation charity, Surfers Against Sewage, who said the penalties for polluting are “not significant enough”.

Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy, said: “We trust water companies to keep us and the environment safe and that the money we pay on our bills actually goes towards treating wastewater and providing clean water to drink. So it’s shocking to hear that water companies are polluting waterways up and down the country.

“The budgets given to regulators to investigate and prosecute water companies are being slashed, presenting an ever greater risk that the water industry will simply be able to get away with continuing to pollute the environment.

“This goes to show that we need systematic change in the water industry to stop this pollution at source, meaningful fines that act as real deterrents, and proper funding of regulators to hold the water industry to account.”

‘Learnt from past mistakes’

Based on the Environment Agency data covering January 2000 to May 2020, Thames Water has been fined the most collectively.

The figures show the company has been fined £27.9 million by the watchdog since 2000, relating to 159 charges.

A spokesperson for Thames Water said they “very much regret the incidents” that led to the fines and have clear ambitions to improve.

The spokesperson said: “Discharges of untreated sewage are simply unacceptable, even when they are legally permitted, and we will work with the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to accelerate work to stop them being necessary.

“Our aim will always be to try and do the right thing for our rivers and for the communities who love and value them. We’ve set out a stretching ambition and have learnt from past mistakes. We’re proud of our important role as one of the custodians of these incredible environments and are committed to working tirelessly to protect and enhance them.”

‘We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously’

In Scotland, Scottish Water was prosecuted the greatest number of times between January 2000 and June 2020 – 78 in total, resulting in fines of more than £370,000.

A Scottish Water spokesperson said that the company covers more land mass, has more waste water treatment works and waste water pipes, and covers more miles of coastline than any other water company in the UK.

The spokesperson said: “We have undertaken a significant amount of investment and improvement in our wastewater networks and take our environmental responsibilities very seriously.

“As part of a long-term strategy, we are transforming our waste water services to meet challenges presented by the impacts of climate change and population growth and to provide effective wastewater networks and protection for the environment.”

‘Regulations are clear and enforced robustly’

Water companies self monitor, provide data and self report incidents to the Environment Agency, which is then scrutinised.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously. We respond to every incident reported to us and take strong enforcement action against those who break the rules. We use our monitoring to target interventions and justify investment.

“The regulations are clear and are enforced robustly – we will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental harm to account. Over the last six years the Environment Agency has brought 49 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £125 million.

“Serious water pollution incidents caused by water companies are not only going down but last year were at their lowest ever recorded level.

“The Environment Agency is working with government, the water industry, farmers and others to improve water quality in our rivers and we are making the case for the funding we need to protect the environment in England.”

Doing the right thing for the environment

Chris Dailly, head of environmental performance at SEPA, said the agency continues to work with Scottish Water to ensure its environmental management improves.

Mr Dailly said: “At the core of our One Planet Prosperity regulatory strategy is the understanding that businesses and organisations that do the right thing for the environment will be supported by SEPA, they’ll be helped to keep doing the right thing and do even better. Those that get it wrong will be held to account.

“We continue to work with Scottish Water through our Sustainable Growth Agreement to ensure that its environmental management improves, incidents that require a recommendation to prosecute do not occur, and they become top class environmental stewards in their own right.”

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