The EA has dealt with 14,641 serious environmental pollution incidents in England since 2001
NationalWorld has painstakingly mapped more than 14,600 environmental pollution incidents that caused major or significant harm to the environment in England since 2001, using Environment Agency records of substantiated events it has dealt with, revealing the number and type of incidents recorded where you live.
The data shows that the number of serious pollution incidents recorded by the agency has plummeted over the last two decades.
But campaigners have questioned the reliability of the data, pointing to the fact that not a single river or lake in England is today classed as being in good health – according to the EA’s own testing regime.
They suggest instead that “severe” job cuts to EA’s workforce may mean serious incidents are going unnoticed.
The EA has seen huge funding cuts over the years, according to reports, which has impacted its ability to hold polluters to account. Whistleblowers told The Guardian and ENDS Report that cutbacks have left them unable to do their jobs.
NationalWorld has previously revealed how Environment Agency investigations into criminal waste pollution fell by almost a third last year – despite a rise in the number of reporting fly tipping incidents.
We also revealed how the number of pollution incidents at beaches and other bathing spots in England reached a five-year high in 2021.
Which areas have seen the greatest number of serious incidents?
From chemical runoff polluting water in Leeds to construction and demolition waste harming land in Cheshire, no region in England has gone unscathed by pollutants since 2001.
According to analysis of EA data, the watchdog has dealt with 14,641 serious environmental pollution incidents in England since 2001, all of which have caused major or significant harm to air, land or water.
This interactive map shows you every single major and significant pollution incident around the country since 2001.
Each dot represents a different incident and shows what pollutant was involved. It also shows the year the incident was reported and the impact it had on the area’s natural environment.
Only incidents that caused either major or significant harm to either land, air or water (known as category one and two incidents) are included.
The data is not broken down by usual English region, instead using EA boundaries that include areas like ‘Southern’ and ‘Thames’.
According to the EA boundaries, the North East has seen the greatest number of pollution incidents causing major or significant harm since 2000 with 2,939 incidents being reported. This is followed by the North West region which has had 2,265 serious pollution incidents and the Midlands region which has had 2,205 incidents.
Pollution incidents at a county level are only available for 9,315 incidents. Of the available data however Lancashire County has had the greatest number with 774 in total. This is followed by Cumbria with 514 and Kent with 492.
Why have serious pollution incidents dropped?
Serious pollution incidents have dropped dramatically since 2002 when the number peaked at 1,296. Last year (up to 22 September) the EA responded to 334 major or significant pollution incidents. The year before (2020) 560 major or significant incidents were recorded.
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said the EA may have missed major incidents because of funding and job cuts.
“While the large fall in major and significant pollution incidents is welcome news, this data should be treated with caution because severe job cuts at the Environment Agency may have led to some incidents being missed,” he said.
“Despite these results, pollution remains a big problem.”
In 2013 The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment reported that 1,700 jobs were to be cut after EA funding was slashed by £33.5 million.
Mr Childs continued: “In 2016 16% of England’s rivers and lakes were classed as being in good health but today none are. Sewage and agricultural pollution remain significant sources of pollution.
“Air pollution also continues to be a national scandal, blighting our cities and towns to the detriment of peoples’ health and leading to between 28,000 and 36,000 early deaths each year, with the poorest and most vulnerable often bearing the brunt.
“The Government still has a long way to go to ensure the clean and healthy environment everyone deserves.”
In 2020 the EA said it had developed more stringent testing for water classification.
This meant it could more accurately report the presence of certain chemicals that do not break down easily in the environment, resulting in no river meeting the criteria for having ‘good chemical status’ that year.
What is polluting England?
Sewage materials are the most common type of pollutant tackled by the EA, according to the data. They were responsible for 16% (2,335) of incidents and included sludge, crude sewage and grey water.
Atmospheric pollutants and effects such as soot/smuts, chemical and landfill odour were the second most common pollutant type and responsible for 14% (2,052) of incidents.
This is followed by oils and fuel such as kerosene and aviation fuel, crude oil, petrol and diesel which was responsible for 1,796 incidents, 12% of all incidents.
Blood and offal, animal carcasses, flies and vermin were also noted to have caused major or significant environmental impacts.
What does the Environment Agency say?
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said regulation and investment by businesses had resulted in a drop of serious incidents.
“We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously and we assess all reports of pollution incidents,” they said.
A robust, risk-based framework is in place to ensure timely action is taken when necessary.
“Regulation by the Environment Agency, and the associated investment by businesses, to prevent pollution has contributed to the drop in the number of major incidents - but we know there is more to do.
“We continue to seek further reductions, both through discharging our regulatory role and also by working with stakeholders to achieve reductions in sectors that we do not directly regulate through environmental permits.”
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