Sewage dumped in shellfish waters without assessing impact - despite over 80,000 discharges in three years

The Lib Dems have slammed the government as “utterly clueless” after data showed sewage was discharged into shellfish waters across the UK over 80,000 times in the last three years

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The government has made no assessment on the impact of sewage dumping in shellfish waters despite figures revealing more than 80,000 spills took place over the last three years.

Water minister Rebecca Pow said the government has not produced an assessment “on the impact of sewage dumping by water companies on shellfish” but it is monitoring E.coli in 101 shellfish waters in England.

E-coli is a bacteria which can be found in the environment and can cause severe stomach pain, diarrhoea, and kidney failure. From its monitoring, the government has identified 63 areas that are of significant economic concern.

Fishermen have been forced to catch shellfish further ashore in some parts of the country to ensure their catch is not polluted with sewage, the Times reports. Sewage pollution can raise the risk of E.coli poisoning and norovirus for people eating contaminated shellfish.

Analysis of Environment Agency data, published last month by the Liberal Democrats, shows that the worst polluter of shellfish waters was United Utilities which serves the northwest of England.

It released untreated sewage from storm overflows into designated shellfish water 39,664 times between 2020 and 2022. Sewage was spilled by the firm for more than 300,000 hours over the period.

Responding to the recent data, a spokesman for United Utilities said: “We are committed to delivering a step change in performance, having reduced the operation of storm overflows by a third since 2020, and we know there is much more to do.”

The government has made no assessment on the impact of sewage dumping in shellfish waters. (Image by  NationalWorld/Mark Hall) The government has made no assessment on the impact of sewage dumping in shellfish waters. (Image by  NationalWorld/Mark Hall)
The government has made no assessment on the impact of sewage dumping in shellfish waters. (Image by NationalWorld/Mark Hall)

South West Water was the second worst polluter with the company dumping sewage in the Fal Estuary in Cornwall 117 times, for almost 2,500 hours. The water company told NationalWorld it is “reducing the use of storm overflows” and its plan “is working but there is more to do”.

The firm added: “We’ve also installed 100% monitoring on our storm overflows, ahead of target. We recognise the vital economic importance of our region’s designated shellfish waters, and we are investing further to continue to bring down spills here and across our 860 miles of coastline.”

Meanwhile, Southern Water spilled sewage into waters home to shellfish 4,041 times last year and has come under fire this week for not knowing the quantity of sewage it is spilling - like other water firms, it only records the number of spills and their duration.

A Southern Water spokesperson told NationalWorld that the water company “understands the concerns of the shellfish industry, and welcomes all research into the impact of human activity on shellfish beds and other coastal business.”

The spokesperson said: “The general decline in shellfish population has been a longstanding and highly complex issue, related to a range of factors including climate change. Sea water quality is also affected by a variety of sources beyond storm overflows, such as industrial and agricultural run-off, animals and litter on beaches, and misconnections of wastewater into surface water drains.

“Southern Water is investing £2 billion between 2020 and 2025 to protect and enhance the environment, and last week new investment was announced into innovative nature-based and engineering solutions to cut the use of storm overflows.”

The spokesperson added the firm is “working extremely hard to drive down storm overflows.” and its digital monitors now cover 98.5% of its outflows “and will hit 100% by this time next year.”

‘Shellfish could be swimming around in filthy water’

Only 91% of storm overflows are currently monitored, but between 2020 and 2022 the figure was much lower. This means that the true figures of how many spills have affected shellfish waters will be much higher because not all storm overflows are monitored.

Sewage spills from storm overflows declined by 19% last year across England but the decrease for dumps into shellfish waters was lower at just 15%. Overall there were 24,255 spills into shellfish waters last year.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, slammed government ministers for being “utterly clueless” that “shellfish could be swimming around in filthy water.”

He added that it is a “national scandal and a farce” and the “government has literally no idea how damaging these sewage dumps are”.

However, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told NationalWorld that the government is “the first to take such comprehensive action on storm overflows” and its new Plan for Water “sets out the increased investment, tougher enforcement and tighter regulation to tackle this issue.”

The spokesperson added: “We already work closely with partners to monitor 101 shellfish water protected areas for e-coli to protect the public and the environment. Moreover, we have introduced compulsory monitoring, set the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce discharges and required them to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history.”

A Water UK spokesperson told NationalWorld: "Every water company is firmly of the view that urgent action is needed to tackle the harm caused by storm overflows and are committed to delivering ambitious plans that will help transform our rivers and coastal waters.

“Water companies are bringing forward £56 billion to replumb England in one of the largest infrastructure programmes ever. This includes removing every high-spilling overflow in England, and protecting sensitive sites.”