UK

Water companies should be investigated for dry spills, says Labour MP

Protests against the practice have been widespread (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Protests against the practice have been widespread (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The new shadow environment secretary Steve Reed has called for an investigation into three water companies that may have illegally dumped sewage on dry days following a BBC report.

Water companies are only supposed to spill after heavy rain to prevent the system from backing up and flooding homes and businesses with raw sewage.

But an investigation from the BBC, which looked at data from Wessex, Thames and Southern Water, suggested these companies were discharging sewage on some of the hottest and driest days of 2022.

Surfers Against Sewage protest
A Surfers Against Sewage event held at Brighton West Pier in East Sussex earlier this year (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Other water companies declined to give their data to the BBC because they are already under a criminal investigation by the Environment Agency.

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said there should be further investigation into the three companies named to see if they breach the terms of the licence and to assess any environmental damage caused by the spills, while blaming the Conservative Government for allowing it on their watch.

He said: “The Conservatives have allowed our precious waterways to be flooded with sewage, damaging the environment and our local tourism.

“This scandal is their fault. They cut back enforcement and monitoring against water companies releasing this filth, and are now failing to prosecute them when they are blatantly breaking the law.

“There must be an immediate investigation into both the breach of the licence and the environmental damage caused. Only then can we expose this illegal pollution and bring those responsible to justice.”

Throughout 2022, Wessex, Thames and Southern Water illegally released sewage on 388 occasions, the BBC’s report suggests, even when much of southern England was in drought and saw the hottest temperatures ever recorded.

All three companies appear to have spilled on July 19 2022, when the temperature topped 40C in some places.

Thames Water only had 62% of its overflows monitored so the actual number of spills is likely to be higher. In contrast, Wessex monitored 91%, and Southern 98%.

The BBC team took sewage spill data and compared it with Met Office rainfall figures to see whether water companies dumped on dry days.

Feargal Sharkey, the punk rock singer-turned-river campaigner, told BBC Breakfast that water companies have already received enough money from customers to fix the sewage issue and therefore bills should not have to go up in consequence.

He said: “Two years ago, the regulator wrote to the water companies. They have a legal obligation to build and operate a sewage system capable of effectively dealing with the content of those sewers.

“They also told the water companies we as customers have already provided them with all the funding they needed to fix this sewage system for the last 30 years.

“So the question we should be asking is, what happened to the money? Where did it go? It clearly wasn’t spent on the sewage system, and can we have a refund?

“If anyone is going to pay for this it should be the shareholders of those companies that have made off with £72 billion of our money and the bondholders who are now reaping the benefits of interest on £60 billion worth of debt.”

Water UK said that dry spills are not unlawful if groundwater enters private pipes that water companies do not control but which connect to the public system, although the Environment Agency said spills due to groundwater are a breach of permit and illegal, the BBC reported.

A Water UK spokesperson said: “There should be no dry spills of sewage into waterways. Ideally, there should be no spills at all.

“Sorting out sewage spills will take investment, which is why the industry has a £10 billion plan – triple the current amount – to upgrade the nation’s sewers.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been contacted for comment.