Surfers Against Sewage: Waste dumped into UK rivers and seas almost 400,000 times last year - key takeaways from new report
Raw sewage was discharged into UK rivers and seas almost 400,000 times last year, a new report by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has unveiled. The figure comes from UK environmental regulators which revealed that untreated sewage was released at the very least 399,864 times which is 1,091 times a day.
SAS says this figure is actually a “huge underestimation” of the “scale of the UK sewage scandal” as in Scotland a “miniscule 4% of sewage overflows have reporting requirements” and in Northern Ireland there is “virtually no monitoring at all”. The group adds that in England there has been “years of self-regulation” which has meant that the “inner workings and finances of the private water companies are as broken and complicated as ever.”
During the 2022-23 bathing season, England reported 301,091 sewage discharges, Scotland 14,008, Wales 84,720, and there was none reported in Northern Ireland due to lack of monitoring, according to the SAS report. It added that over the last year there has also been 1,924 sickness reported to the group which they estimated has caused five years worth of sick days due to sewage pollution.
The report breaks the sewage scandal down into the four nations, detailing how each one is fairing with the pollution. Here we pick out the key points that SAS has unveiled for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The report states that only 14% of rivers in England meet good ecological status and none meet good chemical status due to widespread and persistent discharging of treated and untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial activity. Assessments of water quality in English rivers will also only be checked three times over a nine year period. The most recent round of water quality assessments in England were undertaken four years ago in 2019 by the Environment Agency (EA) as part of the Water Framework Directive, but before that the last assessment was undertaken in 2016 and the next round will not be until 2025.
The group’s citizen science data also shows that 60% of the bathing sites in England that it monitored didn’t meet minimum safety requirements for water users. It said the sites had “such high levels of bacteria present that the EA would classify them as being unsafe for human recreational use.” If these sites were officially designated bathing areas the EA would be required to open a formal investigation into the source of the pollution. One river which received poor water quality was the River Dart in south Devon that hosts many events including the annual Dart 10k swim race.
SAS found that over the last five years in Scotland, untreated sewage has been released 58,304 times. But only 4% of sewage overflows are monitored suggesting that the discharges are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Of the 22 Scottish counties which were monitored for sewage overflow discharges between 2018 to 2022, Argyll and Bute had the highest number, with a total of 12,085 over this period.
Two water companies operate in Wales, Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) and Hafren Dyfrdwy (part of Severn Trent). SAS found that the two discharged sewage for a total of 613,618 hours in 2022 - equivalent to 25,567 continuous days of sewage discharge.
In 2022, SAS also found that the water companies breached their permits with Dwr Cymru having 170 permitted storm overflows in breach of permits for a variety of reasons including failing to supply data, failing to supply improvement information, and discharging in non-storm or non-emergency conditions. Both Hafren Dyfrdwy and Dwr Cymru have subsequently been issued with warnings from Natural Resources Wales, and in October 2022 were issued with fines amounting to £8 million for Dwr Cymru and £400,000 for Hafren Dyfrdwy by Ofwat for their ongoing failures.
Sewage is also being dumped into Wales’ Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which are protected by law due to their geological and ecological importance. Over the last year, Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru) dumped raw sewage into the River Teifi an average of 5.2 times a day, according to SAS’ report.
Northern Ireland Water (NIW) is the sole provider for water and sewerage in Northern Ireland and is owned by the Northern Ireland government. In its report SAS says the government is “not functioning” as a “result of power-sharing agreements breaking down” which means that “important decisions about how to protect and restore the environment in Northern Ireland are just not being made.”
The SAS report adds that Northern Ireland has a total of 2,398 operational sewage overflows however data for the operation of this infrastructure is sparse. The group said it questioned Northern Ireland Water on how they manage discharges and it replied “they don’t currently have the ability to accurately record or measure when discharges occur and how long they last for.”
By the end of 2027, the water company aims to have over 900 monitors deployed with the eventual aim of deployment on all sewage overflows. Despite this, Northern Ireland Water has provided little information with regards to how they plan to disseminate this vital information to water users and the public, whether the information will be real-time, accessible or even be made public at all.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Whether its tackling agricultural pollution, road run-off or sewage discharges, we know there is more to do to improve designated bathing sites and our waterways, which is why we will work with everyone – from farmers or water companies through to citizen scientists – to reduce pollution. We will also take action against polluters where there is evidence permits have not been complied with and we are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works.”
Welsh Water said it is "misleading and disingenuous for Surfers Against Sewage to state that they have uncovered documents that identify performance issues with some of our assets as we collate this data" and it "ignores the investment we have made to date to improve water quality in our seas and rivers, helping ensure that Wales has 25% of the UKs Blue Flag beaches while only having 15% of the coastline, and 44% of rivers achieving good ecological status compared to 14% in England."
NationalWorld has contacted Northern Ireland Water for comment.