The government intends to remove environmental protection regulations in its drive to remove EU law from UK statute books. Nature organisations are furious, including The Rivers Trust and Surfers against Sewage, which campaign to protect rivers and sea.
For some time, the media has reported extensive discharges of sewage into our waters. East Anglia Bylines has published several articles on it. Recently J. J. Jackson wrote about an Environment Agency report which severely criticised water companies for allowing serious damage to rivers. It even suggested ‘prison sentences for Chief Executives… whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents’.
Water companies, including Anglian Water (AW), have permits to discharge sewage into rivers when sewers might be overwhelmed during storms. This is to prevent sewage flowing into streets. For example, the Rivers Trust map shows that in Ford Street near Colchester (covered by Permit ASENF12416) allowed 63 spillages for 869 hours in 2021. Ideally, this would never occur, but the infrastructure is inadequate to deal with heavy rain. There is also widespread suspicion that water companies discharge sewage at non-storm times.
Sewage discharges can be dangerous, especially when they contain, for example, the polio virus and E-coli. However, as Anglian Water informed us, ‘E-coli is …everywhere and comes from animal faeces, rotting vegetation, fish, etc, and doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of human sewage.’
Contamination in the Colne
In March 2022, Colchester environmental campaigner Kemal Çufoğlu tested the Colne and was shocked by his results . We know about sewage, but Kemal also detected high levels of heavy metals, chloride, sulphate, alkalinity, as well as E-coli.
Kemal calls the river a ‘flowing toxic cocktail’ and says the chances of him swimming, fishing or allowing a dog in the river are zero. However, it is not only humans and pets we should worry about. Rivers feed multiple ecosystems along their courses before flowing into the sea. Plants, invertebrates, fish, birds, animals and their habitats nearby can be harmed, and this can eventually affect human food.
Concerned about the results, Kemal contacted AW to request they do confirmative tests. They eventually responded that his tests were for ‘city and well water’ and therefore they could not conclude anything from them. Kemal does not know if AW have performed their own tests. One might think it’s in their interest to test rivers on hearing of pollution near their outflow pipes, to confirm that their equipment is working. Worryingly, recent data from the Environment Agency reveals that ‘Sewage monitors at some popular seaside destinations in England and Wales are faulty or not installed.’
AW told Kemal that the Environment Agency (EA) is responsible for monitoring river water quality. He contacted the EA who replied that they are not required to test the River Colne as it’s not ‘designated Bathing Water’.
So, who should be monitoring water quality?
While water companies are responsible for what they discharge into water, the responsibility for checking sewage discharges could lie with either the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), or the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat). This confusion may be letting some unpleasant stuff slip through the regulatory net.
The campaign leaders of Wild Justice, including Chris Packham, believe that accountability lies with the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat). They served Ofwat with a proposed application for judicial review in April, asking what is done, by whom, to monitor compliance in England with the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWT). Ofwat’s response didn’t satisfy them, so they have raised funds to take a request to the high court for a judicial review of Ofwat’s inaction.
Water companies and regulators fail to protect rivers
The EA report says, ‘Water companies exist to serve the public. Their environmental performance is a breach of trust. The polluter must pay.’ AW recently paid £92 million to its private shareholders, but many people believe that such profit is inappropriate in the light of this performance.
AW have set a target to ensure that storm overflows will not be the reason for unhealthy rivers or seas in our region by 2030. They say they are working towards eliminating all serious pollutions by 2025. Readers may feel this is too slow, and want companies to stop discharging sewage in our rivers now. But while Tory MPs vote to continue to allow them to discharge sewage, rivers will take years to get cleaned up.
We approached Anglian Water for comment.
AW stated that they are investing in environmental projects across the region. For example, ‘Along the River Colne, we are progressing a number of investment schemes including improvements to help remove phosphorous, upgrades to infrastructure to accommodate urban growth and the installation of storm tanks to help capture storm water and prevent storm overflows discharging into the watercourse during periods of heavy rainfall.’
They added: ‘Between 2020 and 2025, we’re reinvesting more than £200 million to reduce storm spills across the East of England. Our Get River Positive programme, which launched earlier this year, is our commitment to transform river water quality across the region.’
*Also there are images supplied by Kemal on the Trello card.