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Water industry under fire over ‘3.6 million hours of sewage spills last year’

The water industry has come under fire after figures revealed storm overflows dumped sewage into rivers and seas for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023.

Campaigners reacted furiously to the news that the amount of time storm overflows were spilling sewage in England was more than double the previous year, while there were calls for water company bosses to be denied bonuses.

Data published by the Environment Agency (EA) reveal there were 464,056 spills in 2023, up 54% from 301,091 in 2022, which the organisation said was partly due to England experiencing its sixth-wettest year on record.

The duration of the sewage spills had more than doubled from 1,754,921 hours hours in 2022, to 3,606,170 hours in 2023, the figures show.

Both the frequency and duration of spills were also up on 2020 levels, which saw comparable amounts of rainfall.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The figures reveal the frequency and duration of spills from storm overflows, which dump untreated sewage into rivers and the sea, usually during heavy rainfall to stop sewers backing up.

They show sewage spills at their highest ever levels, although an increasing number of storm overflows have been fitted with monitors over time, and all now have the technology to record spills.

The figures come amid growing anger over the polluted state of England’s rivers and coasts, with no single stretch of river classed as being in a good overall condition, and hundreds of pollution risk alerts issued for popular beaches around the country last year.

They were described as “disappointing” but “sadly not surprising” by the EA’s director of water Helen Wakeham, while clean water campaigners accused the privatised water industry of having “run amok with billpayers’ money” and called for shareholders to pay for action to stop the spills.

Ms Wakeham said: “We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.”

Water minister Robbie Moore pointed to action the Government had taken on the issue, with a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections next year, fast-tracked £180 million investment to cut spills, and launching a whistleblowing portal for water company workers to report breaches.

He added: “Today’s data shows water companies must go further and faster to tackle storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

In response to the figures, a spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “These results are unacceptable and demonstrate exactly why we urgently need regulatory approval to upgrade our system so it can better cope with the weather.

“We have a plan to sort this out by tripling investment which will cut spills by 40% by 2030 – more than double the Government’s target.

“We now need the regulator Ofwat to give us the green light so that we can get on with it,” they urged.

The water companies say they want to triple investment to £10 billion over the period 2025-2030 to tackle the problem, which would be paid for through consumer bills.

But clean water campaigner Feargal Sharkey told the PA news agency: “They’ve had our money. They’ve had enough money to build a properly functioning sewage system.

“A question we should be asking is, where’s our money going, what happened to it, when are we getting a refund?

“Why on earth would anybody want to pay for a service for a second time that you’ve already paid for and didn’t get the service you needed the first time?

“Any money needs to be spent right now needs to come out of the shareholders’ pockets and not another penny of the public’s money should go into these failures of companies,” he said.

James Wallace, chief executive of campaign group River Action, said: “The scale of the discharges by water companies is a final indictment of a failing industry.

“Having run amok with billpayers’ money for decades, they discharged untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters more than 3.6 million hours last year from 464,000 spills through storm overflows that are supposed to be only used in extreme weather events.”

He accused water companies of plundering the natural resource of fresh water instead of investing in infrastructure, called for reform of environmental regulators and for failing water companies to be refinanced and restructured to put people above profits.

Sienna Somers, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Scandalous inaction by water companies has pushed our ecosystems to the brink and is putting our health at risk.

“But the real sewage scandal is our government’s pursuit of deregulation and deep cuts to the Environment Agency, which mean even ministers are in the dark about the true extent of water pollution,” she said.

She called for increased monitoring and reporting, and for the right to a healthy environment to be enshrined in law so communities could hold polluting firms legally accountable.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said water company bosses should not be allowed bonuses for “this level of failure”.

He told the PA news agency: “It’s absolutely disgusting to see record levels of raw sewage being pumped out into our lakes, rivers and waterways, and a Government standing back and doing absolutely nothing while this continues.”

The figures also showed there were an average of 33 instances of sewage spills per storm overflow in England last year, up from 23 in 2022.

This is the second highest annual average since data began in 2016, with the highest being 35 spills per overflow in 2019.

The figures are for storm overflows where spill data is available, the Environment Agency said.