The water industry regulator has fined just one privatised utility for breaching regulations designed to prevent sewage spills in England since the rules came into force almost 30 years ago, according to official data.
Despite hundreds of thousands of sewage spills into rivers and coastal waters in recent years, Ofwat’s only fine for breaching the wastewater regulations was imposed on Southern Water in 2019, according to data obtained under a freedom of information (FOI) request. The company was hit with £126mn in penalties for breaking the rules that date back to 1994.
The disclosure came as the government said it would consult on whether the Environment Agency should be able to impose unlimited civil penalties on water companies for environmental harm. It is also proposing a ban on the use of plastic in wet wipes, which account for the majority of sewer blockages.
Ministers have come under growing pressure to tackle water pollution and ensure that the industry’s two regulators — Ofwat and the EA — have the resources needed to hold companies to account.
Water minister Rebecca Pow said last week said that the record of water companies in England was “unacceptable” after official data showed there were 301,091 sewage spills into rivers and the sea last year, and 372,533 in 2021. According to the FT’s analysis of EA data, it has recorded more than 1.5mn sewage spills since 2016.
“The bottom line is that Ofwat as a regulator has been absent from a critically important part of its duty” and must do more “to enforce the existing legislation”, said Nick Measham, chief executive of the campaign group WildFish, which filed the FOI request.
Emma Dearnaley, legal director of the Good Law Project, which is involved in cases of alleged sewage dumping, said the findings “expose how little the regulators have done to hold private water companies accountable for the sewage crisis that now blights our country.”
Legislation dating back to 1991 on the treatment of raw sewage requires the water industry to “effectually” deal with it to minimise the release of untreated wastewater into the environment. Under the 1994 regulations, companies must ensure sewage treatment plants were maintained to ensure “sufficient performance under all normal local climatic conditions.”
The Office for Environmental Protection, the executive agency set up post-Brexit to monitor compliance with environmental legislation, launched a probe last year into whether the government and regulators were properly policing sewage spillages.
Ofwat enforces compliance overall and must ensure that companies invest appropriately in their infrastructure. Any company that wants to release untreated sewage to prevent their system from being overwhelmed, for example after heavy rain, must separately apply to the EA for permission.
Ofwat acknowledged it had only levied one fine under the 1994 rules but said it had imposed financial penalties against companies for missing performance targets, including on water treatment works and pollution incidents.
It said it had opened six cases into potential breaches last year of the 1994 wastewater regulations and is conducting a sector-wide probe, launched in 2021, alongside the EA into potential illegal discharges at more than 2,000 sewage works.
It announced on Monday that it had approved 31 projects under a plan to accelerate water company infrastructure investment.
The EA said it was “holding the water industry to account on a scale never seen before”.
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