For several days, four million litres of sewage were escaping into a tributary of the River Wid near Brentwood. Many freshwater bullheads, a protected fish species, were killed by high ammonia levels.
The incident was not a ‘combined sewer overflow’, when sewage is permitted to flow into rivers during heavy storms. Instead, it was an avoidable accident caused by a faulty aeration process at Doddinghurst water treatment centre. It could have been prevented had Anglian Water spent just £205 on early alarm software after an incident there six months earlier for which it was also fined.
Are fines a deterrent for water companies?
The threat of more fines didn’t seem to prompt Anglian Water to put in place watertight checking systems, including installing software to alert staff. (Perhaps that sum doesn’t seem huge to the management: in the year 2018/19, CEO Peter Simpson was awarded a £533,729 annual bonus on top of his pay. The bonus was partly assessed against a target of ‘reducing pollution incidents’.)
As part of its Get River Positive drive, Anglian Water says by 2030 it will “make the changes we all want to see for a better future for our rivers and environment”. So, this is really not a great start. Overhauling sewer infrastructure so as not to routinely discharge sewage into rivers – that’s a costly challenge. (Still desirable, but the subject of another article.) But a repetition of this type of accident was cheap and easy to avoid. Judge Sam Goozee described Anglian Water’s record as “lamentable”.
An Environment Agency report in July called for “prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”. After these serious incidents, there’s no sign of any prison sentence. But perhaps fines aren’t enough to urge effective action?
What do customers want?
I’m sure Anglian Water customers just want the efficient provision of clean water and sewerage services, and no harm to the environment during the process. But if you’re disgusted with your provider’s environmental protection record, you can’t switch to a different supplier. Privatising water in 1989 didn’t even break the monopoly: you’re tied to your regional company.
You’d think water companies would be racing to be the first to declare no more sewage discharges. While missing first easy steps like this, Anglian Water have a long way to go.