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Double the amount of raw sewage was pumped into British rivers and seas last year than in 2022, new figures reveal


Water companies pumped raw sewage into British rivers and seas for a record 3.6million hours last year, more than double than in 2022, new figures have revealed.

The figures, equivalent to more than 450 years, are 105 per cent increase from the previous 12 months, according to Environment Agency data published this morning.

The number of discharges from the 14,000 storm overflows which are owned by English water companies also soared to 464,056 last year, up 54 per cent per cent from 301,091, meaning that last year was the worst on record for sewage spills.

This is the highest number since current data began in 2016, ahead of the previous peak of 403,375 spills in 2020.

Some 3.61million hours of monitored sewage spills were reported in 2023, more than double the 1.75million hours in 2022 and above the previous high of 3.1million hours in 2020.

Raw sewage discharges are meant to be released from storm overflows only in exceptional circumstances due to extreme weather such as torrential rain.

But companies have been found to have been using them routinely, even during dry spells, although the water industry is likely blame the figures on heavy rainfall with last year being the sixth wettest on record.

The Government has signalled it is going to clamp down on water firms, as yesterday the Environment Agency announced a new whistleblowing hotline for those who work industry to report ‘serious environmental wrongdoing by their water companies’.

Water companies pumped raw sewage into British rivers and seas for a record four million hours last year, more than double than in 2022, new figures have revealed

Water companies pumped raw sewage into British rivers and seas for a record four million hours last year, more than double than in 2022, new figures have revealed 

A general view of the fast flowing and swollen River Ure at Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire

A general view of the fast flowing and swollen River Ure at Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire

Findings made from whistleblower reports can be used in enforcement action against these companies, including unlimited financial penalties and criminal prosecutions.

Alan Lovell, Chair of the Environment Agency, said: ‘We share the public’s disgust with sewage pollution and know there’s always more that can be done to protect our waterways.

‘This new whistleblowing portal allows workers to raise their concerns and we encourage people to come forward, knowing any information will be treated in confidence and with sensitivity.

‘The more evidence we have to identify potential criminality, then the more actions we can take to make lasting improvements to our environment.’

Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: ‘We have been clear we will not tolerate pollution and water companies need to act quickly to improve their environmental performance. This whistleblowing portal is another measure which will help the regulator gather vital intelligence and hold rule-breakers to account.

‘It builds on our recent work to ban inappropriate executive bonuses and plans to quadruple the number of water company inspections by the Environment Agency – ensuring we continue to protect our waterways with more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement action.’

According to data revealed by Sky News in 2022, water companies poured raw sewage into rivers and seas for nearly 9.5 million hours in the five-year period between 2016 and 2021.

The new record figures show that nearly half of the sewage discharged over that five year period was pumped into British waterways just last year.

Photo issued by River Action of a water sample taken from the River Thames around Hammersmith Bridge in west London where high levels of E. coli were found

Photo issued by River Action of a water sample taken from the River Thames around Hammersmith Bridge in west London where high levels of E. coli were found

This year every storm overflow has been fitted with an ‘EDM’ monitor – but even this is unlikely to record the full scale of the increases in sewage spills.

High levels of E.coli in Thames ahead of Oxbridge Boat Race

Chloe Peck of River Action, testing River Thames water around Hammersmith Bridge

Chloe Peck of River Action, testing River Thames water around Hammersmith Bridge

High levels of E.coli have been found along a stretch of the River Thames that will be used for the historic Oxbridge Boat Race this weekend, researchers said.

The bacteria, which can cause serious infections, was discovered during regular testing by River Action and the Fulham Reach Boat Club between February 28 and March 26, using a World Health Organisation-verified E.coli analyser.

The 16 tests around Hammersmith Bridge in west London indicated an average of 2,869 E.coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water.

To meet the Environment Agency’s inland bathing water quality standards, the level should be below 1,000 CFU per 100ml.

River Action said the highest level it recorded was 9,801 CFU per 100ml, meaning it was nearly 10 times higher than levels found in bathing waters graded as ‘poor’ by Environment Agency standards.

The Government advises against bathing in water at this grade, which is the lowest of the four possible categories.

River Action said the testing locations suggested the source of pollution is from Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries.

This is based on publicly available data which showed that the water company had discharged sewage into the Greater London area of the River Thames for 1,914 hours from the start of 2024 up to March 26. This is equivalent to 79 out of the 85 days.

The findings come ahead of the annual Gemini Boat Race between the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge on Saturday.

River Action, British Rowing and The Rivers Trust have issued new guidance to rowing clubs across the UK on safety in polluted waters, which has been included in the Gemini Boat Race briefing packs to both universities.

Rowers are advised on the importance of covering cuts, grazes and blisters with waterproof dressings, taking care not to swallow river water that splashes close to the mouth, wearing suitable footwear when launching or recovering a boat, and cleaning all equipment thoroughly.

River Action chief executive James Wallace said: ‘We are in a tragic situation when elite athletes are issued with health guidance ahead of a historic race on the capital’s river.

‘Our water quality results show what happens after decades of neglect by an unregulated water company, Thames Water.’

The organisation said rowers, communities and conservationists are uniting to ask the Government to enforce the law and prosecute polluters.

‘Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health,’ Mr Wallace said.

World champion Imogen Grant, who was also a triple Boat Race winner with Cambridge, said: ‘As a rower, the water I row on is my field of play, and the results of the E.coli testing show that rowers are putting their health at risk to do the sport they love.

‘Thousands of people rely on our rivers for work and recreation and they are being choked with sewage and pollution.

‘More needs to be done to improve our water quality across the country, and testing like this gives us a picture of just how far we have to go.’

E.coli , which is found in faeces, can cause a range of conditions, including urinary tract infection, cystitis, intestinal infection and vomiting, with the worst cases leading to life-threatening blood poisoning. 

Last September, the Office for Environmental Protection said the guidance provided by the Government to regulators might be allowing firms to discharge raw sewage more regularly than ‘intended by the law’.

The Government has said it plans to eliminate 40 per cent of raw sewage overflows into rivers by 2040, and recently announced a £180million plan to fast-track action.

Water firms have said they want to invest a record £96billion to tackle sewage discharges, leaks and a forthcoming crisis over water supply but have been criticised for passing this cost onto customers through higher bills.

Ahead of the figures being published, Labour called for an immediate ban on bonuses for bosses of polluting water companies.

There has been rising public concern at the state of England’s rivers and seas, with bathers regularly not able to swim at their favourite beaches due to pollution and assessments showing none of the country’s rivers are in good overall condition.

Pollution from water companies is – along with farming – a key cause of low water quality in the country’s rivers.

Anger has been directed at water company executives being given high salaries and bonuses despite the condition of the country’s waterways and coasts.

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed accused the Conservatives of being ‘too weak’ to get tough with water company bosses, saying they only launched a consultation on stopping bonuses for executives of firms which allow serious illegal pollution, instead of an immediate ban.

He said: ‘The evidence is clear. We don’t need the dither and delay of a consultation, we need immediate action.

‘That is why Labour will put the water companies under tough special measures.

‘We will strengthen regulation so law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges, and give the regulator new powers to block the payment of bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth.’

The Government announced a ban on water company board members and chief executives if a firm has committed serious criminal breaches in February, and said it would come into effect later this year.

The Environment Agency said it is already conducting the largest ever criminal investigation into potentially widespread rule-breaking at thousands of sewage treatment plants.

Environment Agency Director of Water Helen Wakeham said: ‘Whilst it is disappointing that water companies have reported an increase in sewage spills in 2023, it is sadly not surprising. We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.

‘No other country has the level of monitoring we do, with 100% of storm overflows in England now fitted with a monitor. We are better placed than ever before to hold water companies accountable – thanks to intelligence from our new whistleblower portal, our plans to expand our specialised workforce, new enforcement powers, increased water company inspections and new tools to inform our enforcement work.’

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: ‘I have been clear that sewage pollution in our waters is unacceptable, which is why in just the last few months we announced a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections next year, fast-tracked £180m investment to cut spills, launched a whistleblowing portal for water company workers to report breaches, and will soon set out our plans to ban wet wipes containing plastic.

‘We demanded that 100% of overflows were monitored by the end of last year as part of our drive to improve transparency. Today’s data shows water companies must go further and faster to tackle storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways. We will be ensuring the Environment Agency closely scrutinise these findings and take enforcement action where necessary.’

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