Large amounts of untreated sewage have been released into the coast making beaches toxic and dangerous across England and Wales.
Why is sewage ever pumped into the sea and rivers?
Most of the UK has a combined sewerage system, meaning that both rainwater and wastewater (from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens) are carried in the same pipes to a sewage treatment works.
The Environment Agency (EA), which covers England, says capacity can be exceeded at times during heavy rainfall, especially when the dry ground is unable to absorb the water quickly. This could lead to inundation of sewage works and potential flooding of homes, roads and open spaces.
For this reason, the system is designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to the sea and rivers.
This practice is known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and is permitted.
The EA requires water companies to monitor the overflows and they can be investigated and fined if they fail to meet certain requirements.
How often is sewage released?
Raw sewage was pumped into rivers and seas about 375,000 times in 2021, according to the Environment Agency.
The practice has prompted a major investigation into sewage treatment works.
In 2022, Ofwat, the water regulator for England and Wales, which carried out the investigation, started enforcement cases against six water companies over discharging sewage into the environment at times when this should not have happened.
How can I know what is happening?
The Environment Agency (EA) monitors pollution across England. It says that between May and September “weekly assessments measure current water quality, and at a number of sites daily pollution risk forecasts are issued”. You can search their website by location.
Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has created an interactive map of the UK coastline which shows pollution risk warnings along the UK’s coast and rivers.
What are the health risks?
Whenever water companies discharge untreated sewage into the sea, swimmers are warned to stay away as the contaminated water could lead to serious illnesses for both humans and animals and the government website says open water swimming can increase the risk of gastrointestinal illnesses, or stomach bugs, which may cause diarrhoea and/or vomiting, as well as respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections.
What is being done about it?
Last year, Conservative MPs were criticised after 256 voted to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to place legal duties on water companies to reduce sewage discharges.
They argued safeguards already existed and that new measures would have cost billions.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow told MPs that eliminating storm sewage overflows would cost between £150bn and £660bn, but she didn’t say how she arrived at the figures.
A report by the Environment Agency and Ofwat said the complete separation of wastewater and storm water systems would cost between £350bn and £600bn, increasing household bills between £569 and £999 per year, as well as being disruptive and complex to deliver.
In March, the government said it wanted to tackle sewage pollution which included reducing “most damaging” storm overflows by 75% by 2035, and 80% of all sewage discharges by 2050.
But Dr Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral researcher in marine pollution at the University of Plymouth, says for such goals to be met more “investment and accountability is required from water companies”.
“The protection of our environment, and the community that enjoy it, is paramount,” she told BBC News, adding it was “environmental vandalism” for raw sewage to “enter our environment due to [companies] cutting corners and a lack of appropriate infrastructure”.
A spokesperson for Water UK – a body representing UK water industry – said water firms “agree there is an urgent need” for action and were investing more than £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national environmental programme between 2020 and 2025.
It should be noted that following a complaint, in 2012 the EU Commission took the UK Government to the European Court of Justice over allowing water companies to dump sewage into rivers.
The Court ruled that it was illegal and that sewage overflows should only ever be used in ‘exceptional circumstance’.
One law dictionary I’ve seen defines exceptional circumstances as:
‘Circumstances that could not be reasonably foreseen and for which there was insufficient time to take the necessary action to resolve the situation arising from those circumstance.’
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