'Clean up your act': Environment Agency blasts water companies for environmental failure


Water companies' efforts to protect the environment are 'simply unacceptable' according to government agency

Just one of the UK's major sewage and water companies is living up to its obligations to protect the environment, according to a new report published today by the Environment Agency (EA).

The government watchdog accused water companies of letting environmental protections slide since 2011, with the number of serious pollution incidents rising last year to 56, the first increase since 2013.

Recorded incidents include sewage being discharged into bathing water, and rivers and streams being contaminated leading to harm to wildlife and habitats.

Just one company - Northumbrian Water - gained a four-star rating from the EA, with the rest scoring three stars or below, the threshold at which companies must improve their environmental performance.

Southern Water, South West Water, and Yorkshire Water were only given two stars and described as demonstrating an "unacceptable level of performance". Most water companies are set to fail 2020 pollution targets, the EA warned.

"There is no getting away from the fact that performance in 2018 was simply unacceptable," the report declares.

The EA's executive director of operations, Dr Toby Willison, said water companies "need to clean up their act". "People expect water companies to improve the environment, not pollute rivers and ensure secure supplies of water," he said. "With only one exception, none of the companies are performing at the level we wish to see, the country expects and the environment needs."

The news follows Southern Water receiving a record £126m penalty last month by the water regulator Ofwat over "shocking" failures at its sewage treatment sites. The regulator found Southern Water failed to operate a number of sewage treatment works properly, including not making the necessary investment, which led to equipment failures and spills of wastewater. It also found the company manipulated its wastewater sampling process and misreported the performance of several sewage treatment sites.

In today's report Southern Water and Thames Water were criticised for failing to demonstrate they have robust enough plans to maintain secure water supplies according to the report.

Meanwhile, South West Water, which serves Devon and Cornwall as well as parts of Somerset and Dorset, received a 'red' rating for pollution, logging 98 pollution incidents per 10,000km of sewer, more than double the number of any other firm.

"Companies should be reflecting on their environmental performance and long-term resilience, if this is poor they should be asking themselves whether dividends are justifiable," said EA chair Emma Howard-Boyd.

She promised the EA will continue to work with Ofwat to look at financial penalties to drive better environmental performance, given most fines are currently only a fraction of turnover. 

Water UK's chief executive Michael Roberts said the EA's findings were "disappointing", admitting there is "much more to do" to meet public expectations. He insisted the industry will have invested £25bn into environmental work by 2020.

'Clean up your act': Environment Agency blasts water companies for environmental failure 'Clean up your act': Environment Agency blasts water companies for environmental failure
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