Water companies could face legal action after investigation launched into sewage treatment works - Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Environment Agency & The Water Services Regulation Authority

Major investigation announced by the Environment Agency and Ofwat into sewage treatment works

The Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat have launched a major investigation into sewage treatment works, after new checks led to water companies admitting that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses.

This investigation will involve more than 2000 sewage treatment works, with any company caught breaching their legal permits facing enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can be up to 10% of annual turnover for civil cases, or unlimited in criminal proceedings.

In recent years the EA and Ofwat have been pushing water companies to improve their day-to-day performance and meet progressively higher standards to protect the environment.

As part of this, the EA has been checking that water companies comply with requirements and has asked them to fit new monitors at sewage treatment works. This is to make sure the right levels of wastewater are being treated before overflows are allowed to enter the environment.

Following this action by the EA, several water companies have now revealed that many of their sewage treatment works may not be compliant. This would mean that water companies are in breach of their permits and failing to meet their legal duties.

EA and Ofwat are now looking into all water and sewerage companies to assess the scale of the problem.

Any company caught breaching these minimum standards will face a range of possible enforcement action – up to and including prosecution.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: "This new information is shocking and wholly unacceptable. We have been repeatedly clear in Parliament in recent weeks that we need to tighten up existing rules but also raise standards across the board when it comes to protecting our rivers. That means urgently addressing issues of non-compliance, but also going much further to reduce the harm caused by the discharges that should only be happening in exceptional circumstances. I want to see water companies spending far more on better infrastructure, and far less on payouts to shareholders. I have made my expectations of water companies and their legal duties crystal clear. Water companies must take urgent and immediate steps to abide by their legal duties. I will also be remaining in close contact with the regulators about any fines, prosecutions or other enforcement action that is deemed necessary. The Government has been repeatedly clear that the amount of sewage discharged into our waters by water companies is unacceptable, and has taken direct action to accelerate progress in tackling it."

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Posted On: 19/11/2021

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