An Essex oysterman has said he is fearful for the future of his industry. As water companies continue to pump sewage into the sea, harvesting oysters from heavily contaminated water poses a danger to human health. Now he and others are taking legal action, backed by the Good Law Project.
A family firm for eight generations
Tom Haward, Operations Manager at Richard Haward’s Oysters, is based in Mersea Island. His co-claimants are the Marine Conservation Society, and surfer and activist Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of the national marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage.
Haward has featured in East Anglia Bylines before. Last year, he wrote an article about how Brexit ended the family firm’s highly profitable export market to the EU. Now the business faces yet another another existential crisis of the government’s making.
His oyster firm has been in his family for eight generations. He says that he has been “lucky” that his oyster beds have not been impacted by sewage discharges so far, but he worries about the “immediate threat” they pose to marine life around Mersea Island if they are allowed to continue. Last year a Kent oyster company stopped farming the shellfish after dozens fell ill. In court Southern Water admitted to having illegally discharged raw sewage into the north Kent oyster beds.
Untreated sewage – no end in sight
As EAB has regularly reported, untreated sewage is being discharged into coastal waters via storm overflows, which stop sewers from becoming overwhelmed. Storm overflows are supposed only to be used in an emergency following exceptionally heavy rainfall, but water companies are using them with alarming regularity.
Last year alone, storm overflows discharged untreated sewage 372,533 times into English waters, over a period of 2.7 million hours, according to figures from the Environment Agency. Using the same dataset, Surfers against Sewage say Anglian Water dumped sewage for more than 194,000 hours in 2021.
In August, the Government published a Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which gives water firms until 2050 to invest in and improve sewers to prevent them from overflowing into English waterways and coastlines.
But Tom Haward has warned that the 2050 target is “too late” to protect his industry, “considering how raw sewage can absolutely devastate the environment so quickly”. If urgent action isn’t taken, he fears that his family business might be closed off completely to his young daughter if she chooses to go into the industry in the future.
It’s time for judicial review
The Good Law Project (GLP) has now taken legal action by launching a claim for a judicial review. The claim seeks to compel the Government to rewrite its plan to impose much tighter deadlines on water companies to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows and expand protections for coastal waters.
GLP’s legal director, Emma Dearnaley, believes the issue of sewage dumping is too important to leave in the hands of the water companies. She thinks the 2050 deadline isn’t tough enough and the government needs to come up with a better strategy to address the national problem.
“The widespread pollution of our rivers, waterways and shorelines from sewage dumping,” says Dearnaley, “is one of the biggest environmental scandals of our times – threatening human health, marine life and local businesses like Richard Haward’s Oysters.
“The Government’s current plan is not fit for purpose as it allows water companies to discharge huge amounts of sewage into our coastal waters for the next three decades. We are proud to be supporting Richard Haward’s Oysters, the Marine Conservation Society and Hugo Tagholm to take the Government to court to force it to revise and strengthen its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.”
Tom Haward says he is “really passionate to get involved with the Good Law Project, as these are people who actually want to make a difference now and start to protect people before it becomes too late”. The GLP recently visited Richard Haward’s Oysters in Mersea Island to discuss how his business is being impacted by sewage discharges. You can watch their interview with Tom Haward here.