Water companies have been fined £10.5 million for sewage spills that killed more than 33,000 fish over seven years, while industry bosses earned £30 million in two years.
The fines were slammed by the Liberal Democrats as “feeble”, with the party describing it as mere “pocket change for the profiteering water firms.”
Figures released by the Environment Agency under a freedom of information request revealed at least 33,800 fish were killed over a seven year period between 2015 and 2022, the Times reports.
But the figures are likely to be even higher as not all pollution incidents record the number of fish killed, while some spills go unreported and unmonitored.
The fines issued by the regulator to five of England’s ten sewage companies included Anglian Water, Severn Trent, Thames Water, United Utilities and Yorkshire Water.
The penalties relate solely to fines issued for fish deaths caused by enforcement actions. Between 2015 and 2021, companies were fined £140 million in total - £90 million of which was for one case alone where Southern Water spilled sewage into the sea.
The latest freedom of information data found the most fish killed in a single incident occurred in the River Amber in Derbyshire after Severn Trent released a hazardous chemical in 2015. Around 30,000 fish died and the firm was fined £350,000 three years later.
Thames Water received the biggest penalty of £4 million in 2021 for its release of untreated sewage in the Hogsmill River in southwest London in 2016. The incident triggered dozens of alarms that were either missed or ignored and the spill released enough toilet paper to fill 2,500 bin bags.
The data also revealed that Anglian Water paid a fine of just £8,000 in 2020 for an incident that killed fish in the Willow Brook in Northamptonshire with the firm paying an additional sum to charity over the pollution.
As water firms were fined, a total of £30.6 million was paid to water industry executives from April 2021 to April this year, according to research by the Liberal Democrats, with the largest bonuses of £7.7 million paid over to executives at Severn Trent. The water firm also had the highest paid chief executive in the sector, Liv Garfield.
‘The British public won’t tolerate this any longer’
The Lib Dems is calling for a blanket ban on water executive bonuses and made water pollution a centrepiece of its campaign for the local elections across England on Thursday (4 May).
The party’s environment spokesman Tim Farron told the Times: “How many more animals need to die from sewage before Conservative ministers act? The British public won’t tolerate this any longer. These feeble fines are pocket change for the profiteering water firms.”
It comes as new research by charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) found most of the British public support curbing bonuses. A poll of 4,000 people by Opinium for SAS found 85% supported a ban on bonuses for chief executives if firms fails to meet minimum environment standards.
SAS recently announced it is holding at least 12 protests across all of the water company catchments on 20 May against the UK’s government inaction on improving water quality and pollution levels in waterways.
Polluters are also facing pressure from fishing group “Activist Anglers” which released a video this week highlighting the impact on rivers from water firms and the agricultural sector.
Co-founder of the group Jim Murray said: “If it continues unabated, then ours might be the last generation to fish these waters. As anglers we need to get more proactive.”
Meanwhile, economic water regulator Ofwat recently said company boards should consider trimming bonuses for environmental failures, but it has not announced the requirement of a ban.
The government is consulting on unlimited civil sanctions for water company pollution incidents which would be quicker to pursue than the £10 million fines imposed via the courts.
A Water UK spokesman said: “Water companies wholeheartedly agree that there is an urgent need to tackle the harm caused by storm overflows to achieve the change we all want to see in our rivers and seas. Companies are set to spend a record £56 billion to replumb England in one of the largest infrastructure programmes ever.”