More than 800 sewage dumps took place daily last year as environment secretary faces calls to resign

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Environment secretary Therese Coffey should resign over the amount of sewage water companies have discharged into UK waterways, the Liberal Democrats have said.

New figures published by the Environment Agency (EA) show a total of 301,091 spills in 2022 in England and Wales - an average of 824 per day. This is a 19 per cent decrease from the previous year but John Leyland, the EA's executive director, said this was “down to dry weather, not water company action”.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey accused Ms Coffey of presiding over a “national scandal” and allowing the water companies to get away with environmental crimes.

Environment Agency figures show a drop in sewage spills last year because of lower-than-average rainfall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)
Environment Agency figures show a drop in sewage spills last year because of lower-than-average rainfall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Archive)

He said: “These figures are a damning verdict on the government's failure to protect our treasured rivers and lakes. This is a national scandal and it is happening on the Conservatives' watch.

“A historic drought is no excuse for this government's inaction and failure. The environment secretary has let water companies get away with these environmental crimes for far too long.

“It is clear she simply doesn't care enough to get tough on these polluting firms.

“Therese Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction.”

Jim McMahon MP, Labour's shadow environment secretary, said the government has “no respect for British communities” for allowing 824 raw sewage discharges to occur daily in 2022.

“People should be able to just enjoy where they live, work and holiday without having to worry about the Tory sewage scandal sullying their areas. Local businesses shouldn’t have to worry about government failures hitting tourism trade,” Mr Mahon said.

“The next Labour government will build a better Britain, ending the Tory sewage scandal by delivering mandatory monitoring on all sewage outlets, introducing automatic fines for discharges, setting ambitious targets for stopping systematic sewage dumping and ensuring that water bosses are held to account for negligence.”

The government said it is pushing the water companies to invest more in updating its infrastructure to reduce the number of spills. They said increasing monitoring of storm overflows from 7 per cent in 2010 to 91 per cent last year has made the problem clearer and easier to deal with.

Water minister Rebecca Pow said the government has set the “strictest targets ever” on water companies to reduce sewage discharges and is requiring them to make record infrastructure changes.

There were 824 incidents of sewage dumps every day in 2022 on average (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
There were 824 incidents of sewage dumps every day in 2022 on average (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As well as poisoning swimmers, sewage damages river ecosystems through chemical and microplastic pollution and algal blooms, which feed on the phosphates in faeces and explode in size, consuming the water's oxygen and suffocating other forms of life.

The EA said sewage accounts for 7 per cent of water bodies failing to reach good ecological status.

Ali Morse, water policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts said: “While some spills happen because of disrepair, which must be urgently fixed, many instances are due to lack of capacity in the sewage system - a bigger problem which ultimately leads to human waste spilling into the environment.

“Instead of building huge underground storage tanks, companies need to work with partners to keep rainwater out of the sewage system in the first place.

Therese Coffey has been called to resign (PA Wire)
Therese Coffey has been called to resign (PA Wire)

“The best way of doing this is by creating more ponds and wetlands, which also provide vital habitat for wildlife.”

Severn Trent Water recorded the most incidents of sewage spills at 44,765 incidents in 2022. The provider covers the Midlands and parts of Wales in addition to serving parts of Humber Bristol, in total reaching 4.6 million households and businesses.

A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water said: “Tackling overflows, which were designed into the system as a relief valve, is a priority for us but it is also a significant task.”