Why is raw sewage pumped into the UK’s rivers? Thames Water fined £3.3m for sewage spill

Water companies across the UK could face unlimited fines for releasing raw sewage  (James Manning / PA)
Water companies across the UK could face unlimited fines for releasing raw sewage (James Manning / PA)

Thames Water has been fined £3.3 million after the company was found guilty of discharging millions of litres of undiluted sewage water into two rivers and causing the deaths of more than 1,400 fish.

The release of sewage near Gatwick Airport happened in October 2017, impacting the Gatwick Stream in Sussex and Surrey’s River Mole.

The incident happened after a storm pump unexpectedly activated, filling up the storm tank despite no rainfall for 21 hours, before it spilled sewage into the river for nearly 6 hours. Both the activation of the storm pump and the sewage spill were unnoticed by Thames Water. By the time an alarm was heard, the lead technician was unreachable.

There are more than 200,000 km of riverways in the UK, and last year, the BBC reported that raw sewage was dumped into rivers and coasts for 1.75 million hours, the equivalent of 825 times per day, on average.

Water companies had previously issued an apology via Water UK, an industry body representing England’s nine water and sewage businesses.

“We’re sorry about the upset and the anger from the fact that there have been overspills of untreated sewage onto beaches and into rivers over the past few years,” Ruth Kelly, Water UK chair, had told the BBC. “We’re sorry that we didn’t act sooner, but we get it.”

The companies had also promised to triple funding for sewer-system upgrades, offer the public “near real-time” data on sewage spills, and reduce spills by up to 35 per cent by 2030. However, these measures could also come at the cost of higher bills for the public.

Here’s why raw sewage is being pumped into the UK’s rivers and where to find clear water.

Why is raw sewage pumped into the UK’s rivers?

The UK operates a combined sewerage system, which means that both rainwater and sewage water are carried in the same pipes.

All waste should ordinarily be carried to sewage-treatment works, to be responsibly disposed of, but the Environment Agency (EA) has said this system can be overwhelmed during periods of heavy rainfall.

As a result, the system is designed to overflow into rivers and the sea to avoid flooding homes, roads, and open spaces.

While this process is accepted, it is designed to be occasional, which it currently is not. The EA also requires water companies to monitor such overflows and they can be fined if they fail to meet certain requirements.

The Government has now stated that they plan to change laws so that unlimited fines can be issued for sewage dumping.

How can I check to see which UK rivers are clean?

The EA monitors pollution across England and has a tool that you can search by location to establish the cleanliness of water sources near you.

There are also websites where you can find out about beaches and bathing water in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has also created an interactive map showing pollution risk warnings along the coast and rivers, which is particularly useful for open-water swimmers, surfers, paddle boarders, or others who regularly take public water dips.