Use of sewage overflows has now become ‘routine’ and water companies must now face significant fines for not addressing the issue, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee says. 

Last week, MPs angered environmentalists when they voted 268 to 204 in favor of proposals in the Lords that sought to impose a new duty upon water companies to reduce raw sewerage discharges into rivers. 

As Britain’s sewers struggle with heavy rain, problems have emerged. Water companies are allowed to release rainwater or untreated sewage into rivers or the sea to stop waste back up in streets and homes.  

According to government environmental officials, the amount of sewage that is being dumped into rivers is unacceptable. This was evident in Britain’s more than 400,000 cases last year. 

Environmentalists say better infrastructure such as storage tanks could prevent this, but it has been reported the cost to make waterways safer could be between £150 billion and £160 billion.  

Phillip Dunne, Conservative MP from Ludlow and Chaire of the Environmental Audit Committee, stated this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today that he was seeking a legally-enforceable duty on water companies in order to address the issue. He stated that he believed it was important that water companies give priority to the issue and that a duty should be placed on water companies in the bill.

Mr Dunne added: ‘This is going to take decades to fix, there are hundreds of thousands of kilometres of drainage pipes under our streets and across our fields, and many of them are co-mingling, surface water with foul water, and that’s the root of the problem. It will take a long period of time and considerable resources in order to fix that.

Nick Robinson, the host, said that this particular case was not about a deliberate policy to pump raw sewage but overflows during storms and heavy rains.

Mr Dunne stated: “No, there’s not a deliberate policy to make this happen, it’s an escape device, it’s just a release mechanism, if I may, when there is substantial rainfall. This should only be used in extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, this has become routine. I think this is why the law needs to change.

He added: ‘I do think it is important for directors of water companies to recognise they’ve got a responsibility to fix these problems, so I think imposing a statutory obligation on them will mean that this gets board-level attention, which in the past, some of the fines imposed… have not been significant enough to really capture their imagination. This is changing.

This morning Phillip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was seeking a legally enforceable duty on water companies to tackle the issue

Phillip Dunne, Conservative MP from Ludlow and Chaire of the Environmental Audit Committee, said this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today that he was seeking to impose a legally binding obligation on water companies in order to address the issue

This map from The Rivers Trust shows where sewage enters local rivers. The trust advises people to avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these discharges and avoid the overflows (brown circles), especially after it has been raining

This map by The Rivers Trust shows the locations where sewage can enter local rivers. The trust advises people not to enter the water immediately downstream from these discharges. They also recommend that they avoid overflows (brown circles), especially if it has been raining.

This map from Surfers Against Sewage, part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service, tracks real-time combined sewage overflows and pollution risk forecasts, and monitors the water quality at over 400 locations around UK rivers and coastlines

Surfers Against Sewage has created this map as part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service. It tracks real-time combined sewage flows and forecasts pollution risks. It also monitors the water quality at more 400 locations around the UK’s rivers and coastlines.

A close-up of the Surfers Against Sewage map shows where swimming is advised against on a stretch of the south coast

A close-up view of the Surfers Against Smog map shows where swimming is discouraged on a stretch the south coast

The Rivers Trust examined Environment Agency data to discover that 86% of England’s rivers are in a ‘failing state’. The charity stated that water companies were responsible for more than half these cases, partly because they were dumping raw or partially-treated wastewater into rivers. 

What are the current laws governing the release of sewage into rivers and seawater by water companies? 

Britain’s sewer system, which is largely Victorian-style, becomes overwhelmed when there is too much rainfall.  

Water companies are allowed to release rainwater and a smaller amount untreated sewage directly into rivers and seas to prevent waste backing up in homes and streets.

However, environmentalists believe that better infrastructure like storage tanks at treatment facilities or nature-based solutions such as tree-planting can be used to address the problem.

Figures show that over 400,000 sewage overflows’ occurred in English waters last yea, lasting a total 3.1 million hours compared to 293,000 in 2019.

According to the WWF, water companies are “relying on sewer overflows in order to compensate for under-capacity”. 

After treatment, wastewater is typically released to the atmosphere, either into rivers or out to sea via long-term outfalls or coastal discharges. 

The House of Lords had introduced the proposed amendment to Government’s Environment Bill into legislation, but MPs voted against it. 

The amendment aimed to clean up rivers by placing a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.  

And Surfers Against Sewage has highlighted 20 beaches along the Sussex and Hampshire coast which it claims are polluted, including Hastings, Bognor Regis, Saltdean near Brighton and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. 

The group, which maintains a map showing the worst-hit areas, also identified Herne Bay in Kent and Seaton in Cornwall as polluted. This means that swimming there is not recommended.

The Rivers Trust also has a second map that shows where sewage enters local streams. The charity advises people not to go directly downstream of these areas, especially if it is raining.

It comes seven weeks after the Government told wastewater plants that they could dispose of sewage that was not fully treated because of a shortage in chemicals due to the lorry driver crisis.

Only 22 Conservatives voted against the Government last Wednesday by voting for an amendment in the Environment Bill that would have placed a legal obligation on water companies to not pump sewage into rivers.

The Duke of Wellington introduced the amendment in the House of Lords. It would have required water companies and the Government to take all reasonable steps to avoid the combined sewer overflows that regularly release untreated waste to rivers and seas. 

Royston Smith, a Conservative MP, voted down the amendment. He told the Southern Daily Echo that while no one wants sewage to our rivers, you can’t change an existing system where the majority of it is still Victorian overnight. 

“Things such as illegal sewage dumping are a completely different thing, but there comes a time when the system can’t cope with significant rain or flooding and it will overflow into the rivers unfortunately.

Surfers Against Sewage are outraged at the claims that water companies continue to dump raw sewage into rivers despite being stopped by ministers from the Government.

Hugo Tagholm of the campaign group said that he was disappointed that MPs did not support the amendment to impose a legal obligation on water companies to prevent raw sewage from entering our rivers and oceans. 

BBC Breakfast: Mr Tagholm stated that the amendment being sought is reasonable.

“We believe that the water companies should reduce the dividends they make each year to restore our rivers, and our coastlines.

“They don’t have the right to destroy these areas and must take the bold steps to restore them. We need to ensure that the industry doesn’t put their profits before making our spaces safe.

Bournemouth beach visitors were outraged by the dumping of sewage  

One of Britain’s most famous seaside destinations has seen protests against the dumping of sewage in the water.

One mother stated that she wouldn’t let her child play in the sea at Bournemouth Pier because she didn’t want him to get sick. Reports claim that sewage was dumped into the sea at 17 Dorset beaches last weekend. However, it is believed that this has stopped.

Alexis Cook, 38 from Hertfordshire, brought her six year-old son Leo to Bournemouth as part of the half term holidays.

She stated, “I read online that there was an issue with sewage, but we came here to avoid it.” It’s a shame, as this beach is one of the best in the country.

Clapton was avoided because of sewage dumps there. I wish I would have checked the other places it had been disposed of. It’s good that my son is happy playing in sand. He won’t be swimming in the water, now that I know this. I don’t want him to become ill, with Covid and all this.

A mother of three aged 43, who lives in Sandbanks, said that she was walking along the seven-mile promenade and that it was disappointing to hear that water was being pumped here. We rarely make it to this part of the coast, as we live in Sandbanks.

It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible.

A Christchurch resident posted on social media that they noticed a strange hue in the water at Avon Beach.

Janine Roberjot Ray wrote: ‘Went down to Avon beach yesterday. I saw many people swimming. I was alerted when a family let their children in on their body boards. The water had a strange colour. It certainly didn’t look inviting.

A photo of apparent sewerage floating off the Bognor coast by a paddleboarder was widely shared by social media users as they debate the issue. However, experts in the water industry claimed that the picture looks like an algal bloom and is unlikely to have been caused from wastewater.  

The picture was taken by paddleboarder Paul Boniface, 43, who said the ‘sea is criss-crossed with orange-brown foam for the last two miles (from Pagham to Butlin’s). This is what I can only imagine was yesterday’s breakfast. 

MailOnline was told by experts in the water industry that the picture resembles algal bloom. This can be caused either by nitrates or from agricultural practices.

But Boniface said that even if it were an algal bloom, it would be considered ‘an artworkefact of pollution’. He also stated: ‘You get the nitrates in sewage and farm-run-off pollution, which gets into the sea and causes these blossoms. According to my understanding, it’s the same cause. 

Surfers Against Sewage and other campaign groups said it was vital to get action started to combat sewage pollution now.

However, Environment Secretary George Eustice urged MPs to reject the bill’s amendments just days before Boris Johnson hosts world leaders at Cop26’s climate change summit in Glasgow.

Social media users posted images of the MPs who rejected the amendment, causing a massive backlash. One person asked: “What kind of person votes for water companies to pump rawsewage into our water?” 

Another wrote, “I just emailed MP asking her to outline benefits of raw sewage being pumped into our waterways.”

MailOnline was informed by a government source: “Tory MPs have not voted to allow water firms to dump raw sewage in our rivers and oceans.” The Environment Bill will provide progressive reductions in storm overflows. 

“The Environment Bill” requires us to set a goal to drive progress on water-quality issues. We are already taking significant steps to improve water quality. Those who claim otherwise are simply not true.

The measure will now be returned to the Lords tomorrow. There, peers will send it back to Parliament and force another vote among MPs.

Crossbench peer the Duke of Wellington said that he believed the amendment would encourage investment in improving the systems. The systems date back decades and are badly in need of upgrading.

This comes as Rivers Trust figures show that 53% of England’s rivers fail to pass cleanliness tests. This is at least partially due to water companies releasing raw or partially-treated wastewater.

According to the Telegraph, only 14% of England’s rivers have a good ecological status. None have a good chemical status. This is because water companies can currently release raw sewage into rivers as part of a “combined sewer overflow”, a legacy of Britain’s Victorian drainage system.

This means that rainwater and liquid waste can be combined in the same tanks. The overflows are used to provide an escape valve and allow water to flow into waterways instead of backing up into homes or streets. 

Feargal Sharkey, a former Undertones singer, is one of those who are fighting to clean up British waterways. She announced last year plans to take legal action against the Environment Agency for its management of England’s rivers.

Supply chain issues impact the quality of sewage treatment chemicals 

The government informed wastewater plants last month that they could dispose of sewage that was not fully treated because of a shortage in chemicals due to the lorry driver crisis.

Some chemicals used in the sewage treatment process were one of the products that was not available due to the driver shortage. This was caused by a combination Brexit and the Covid Pandemic.

In a regulatory statement published at the beginning September, plants were advised that they could dispose off effluent not completely treated due to disruption caused by’supply Chain failure’.

The Environment Agency issued the statement. It introduced a waiver that would allow certain companies to skip the third stage of the treatment process if they don’t have the right chemicals.

Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), stated that the waiver was specifically related to a lack of ferric sulphate, an alkaline solution used to suppress the growth and reproduction of algae.

The government agency stated that the regulatory statement (RPS), which would apply up to the end of the year, would be applicable to companies. Companies would then need a permit in order for the practice to continue.

He said that he had previously stated: “As nations, we’re going be forced to face a very basic situation. Do we want our rivers to be full of our own human wastes?

“The truth is, unfortunately there’s been an issue over the long term about failure to regulatory oversight, lack leadership, most notably driven by concerns about water prices, and now we’ve reached a situation through incompetence where every river is basically full of sewage.” 

MPs were informed in April that water companies had poured raw sewage into the rivers for three million hours last spring, while paying billions to shareholders in dividend payments.

The Thames River Environmental Audit Committee was informed by the Mogden treatment facility that it sent over 400 metric tons of effluent to the Thames in two days last autumn.

Sewage can only be discharged during heavy rain periods, but Mr Sharkey stated to MPs that the River Chess and Chesham plants in Buckinghamshire were ‘discharging sewage for 35 consecutive days’.

Peter Hammond is a retired professor of computational Biology at University College London. He said that his analysis on sewage treatment works had revealed 160 violations to permits granted by EA for sewage discharges.

He stated that the watchdog had only prosecuted 174 cases in the past decade for illegal discharges.

Hammond explained to MPs that his research revealed that many of the treatment plants don’t continue to treat a minimum level of sewage when they’re spilling. Many of these illegal spillages aren’t being identified by EA.

“My research revealed 160 permits were violated in 2020,” said a researcher. I believe they are in order of magnitude that I think is 10 times more … than the agency have identified.’

According to the EA, there were 403,171 sewage spillages into England’s rivers or seas in 2020 because of storm overflows. The EA also stated that there were more spillages than 3.1 million hours in 2020.

As part of a pledge for greater transparency around the issue, the data was made public ‘proactively’. 

While overspills caused by rain do not attract fines, in July, Southern Water was fined a record £90 million for dumping sewage off the south coast of England between 2010 and 2015.

But this fine, and a £20million one served on Thames Water in 2017 after repeated illegal discharges of sewage into the Thames, are unusually high.

In 2019, there were four prosecutions of water companies, resulting in fines of just under £1.3million in total, and environmentalists are also calling for increased fines.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said Monday that ‘the amount of sewage released by water companies into our river is unacceptable. Water companies have been told that they must reduce storm water sewage discharges as a priority.

“We have every confidence in the provisions of this Bill to deliver progressive reductions on the damage caused by storm overflows. Any suggestion to that otherwise is both disingenuous as untrue.”

The body added that there were ‘significant penalties’ in place for offenders, and earlier this year Southern Water was handed a record-breaking £90million fine, while Thames Water was fined £4million and £2.3million for separate incidents.

The spokesman added that between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1billion on environmental improvements in England, including £3.1billion on storm overflow improvements alone.

MailOnline was informed by a spokesperson for Southern Water that: “Across the country, sewer systems were constructed connected to surface water drains to protect homes from flooding. 

“In heavy or intense rainfall, the Environment Agency allows wastewater companies to release this rain to protect homes, schools, and businesses from flooding. Customers can also use their toilets and showers as normal. 

‘As a service to recreational water users such as kayakers or windsurfers we provide a near real-time Beachbuoy service which alerts them to when this storm water has filled storm tanks and – after screening – is being released through long sea outfalls around two miles out to sea. 98% of outfalls are now covered by sensors and telemetry.

“As wastewater providers catch-up with our industry-leading monitoring efforts, public awareness about storm releases is growing. There are increasing calls to end this highly regulated practice. We support these calls, and have adopted a unique approach. 

‘While it would be expensive and disruptive to separate all sewers from the surface drains, we believe a partnership approach is the best. It is imperative that regulations regarding sustainable drainage are changed to ensure rainwater separation is included in all new construction. It is important to invest in natural capital, such as expanded and enhanced wetlands. 

‘Between 2020 and 2025 we are investing almost £2 billion on wastewater services and environmental protection. This is a huge challenge. Climate change has led to more intense rainstorms. Population growth and development have eroded greenfields that used to be storm water soakaways.

“Concrete and Steel alone will not stop storm releases, but partnership between Southern Water, other wastewater providers, developers, regulators, central and local governments can reduce the nation’s dependence on the system.

‘In Thanet were a funding a £400,000 pathfinder programme looking at the sources of rain water in our sewer system with a view to targeting the greatest sources and reducing reliance on the storm system.’

And a spokesman for industry body Water UK said: ‘Water companies are passionate about their role as custodians of the environment and are investing £5billion in the environment – including £1.2billion to improve storm overflows and sewage treatment works.

“More must be done. Our 21st Century Rivers report, published recently, lists ten key steps that will lead to the radical changes we all desire. We are asking government to pass legislation in a new Rivers Act, which will give rivers more protection.

“Water companies are not the answer and without everyone working together we won’t see the radical transformation required and the healthy, thriving river that everyone wants.