Water companies in England and Wales have been accused of breaching environmental permits by dumping raw sewage into rivers and the sea even during dry periods, according to a charity that compiles data from the utilities.
Sewage releases from storm overflow pipes are only permitted by the Environment Agency during “unusually heavy rainfall”. But research by the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage found that water companies have been tipping untreated effluent into popular bathing spots even during dry spells.
The charity, which collects the data to protect swimmers’ health, issued 9,216 sewage pollution alerts at 450 popular bathing spots in the year to September. At least 145 of these incidents were potentially illegal as they took place during periods in which there was no rain.
Nearly half of the so-called “dry spills” were recorded at beaches where water quality is described as “excellent”, according to the report released on Thursday.
Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy at SAS, said it was “alarming to uncover evidence of potentially illegal activity by water companies” and made a “mockery of the categorization system for designated bathing waters in the UK”.
The findings were based on data from electronic monitoring devices on storm overflow pipes and combined with meteorological information.
The report is likely to underestimate the scale of the problem as not all storm overflow pipes are fitted with the technology, water companies are responsible for reporting their own data and only some beaches and bathing spots were included.
Last year Southern Water, which is responsible for supplying and treating sewage in the south-east, received a record £90mn fine for deliberately manipulating and misreporting data for seven years until 2015. The breach highlighted the problems with relying on water companies to report their own sewage outflows.
SAS also found that 63 percent of illnesses recorded on its app and reported to a doctor were attributed to poor water quality. Gastroenteritis was the most common illness, as well as ear, nose, throat, skin and urinary tract infections, the report said.
The Environment Agency has already launched an inquiry into companies’ compliance with discharge permits, while Ofwat, the water regulator, is investigating utilities over the management of their sewage treatment works. Neither investigation has yet been concluded.
Ofwat said it would review the charity’s report with interest. “What we are witnessing, with sewage being released into the environment, is not acceptable,” he added.
If found guilty of breaching regulations, the water monopolies could face fines of up to 10 percent of annual turnover in civil cases, or unlimited amounts in criminal proceedings. Three water companies are listed and the remainder are owned by private equity, sovereign wealth and pension funds.
Water UK, which represents the industry, said there was an “urgent need” to tackle storm overflows. “To accelerate progress further, we need government to end housing developers’ uncontrolled connections to sewers without first knowing their capacity.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environmental Agency said: “We have been clear that water companies cannot profit from environmental damage. Through increased monitoring and transparency, driven by government, the regulators have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage treatment works ever.”
This article has been updated to clarify the period for which Southern Water was fined