According to a BBC report, Southern Water has dumped 16 to 21 billion litres of sewage water, equivalent to 7,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools in Kent, Hampshire, and West Sussex.
The court fined the water company, which admitted to 6,971 spills from 17 sites across the three counties, a record £90m because of the illegal dumpings between 2010 and 2015.
The article says that an Environment Agency began an investigation after shellfish in the area have been found to have E-coli.
Due to the offence’s sheer scale, the courts believed that everyone in Southern Water is involved, from top management to ordinary employees. The article says that this is not the first violation for the water company either, as it has had 168 previous convictions and cautions.
During heavy rains, water companies are permitted to divert wastewater to the environment to prevent sewer overflows.
However, the Environment Agency discovered that even during periods of low rainfall, the water company continues to discharge waste on “thousands of occasions” to avoid heavy fines if they cannot meet the treated water standards.
According to the article, “Directing sewage straight into rivers and seas improved the quality of treated water leaving the works, which is regularly tested and can lead to heavy fines if standards fall, the court heard.”
“Mr Justice Johnson said the offences had been motivated by a desire to ‘focus the company’s attention on those metrics that increase its income, disregarding its wider compliance obligations’.”
In another BBC article, Scotland is also facing the same problem. Sewage spills in the country have grown by 40% in the last five years. Since 2016, an equivalent of 47,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of wastewater has been dumped into its rivers.
However, the actual volume of spills is believed to be much higher than this because data only comes from 3% of the total 3,697 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) spread across the country, and many of the pipes flow close to popular beaches and habitats the article says.
Scottish Water estimates that they would need at least £650m to upgrade the 31,000 miles of sewer networks to fix the overflows.
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, says that “Sewer overflows seem to have been baked into the industry’s thinking. Rather than being used as ’emergency release valves’ during exceptional storms, they are potentially used as a means of almost continuous sewage discharge”.
Tagholm says that the ‘decimation’ of rivers results from defunding regulators. He adds that addressing the problem will require ‘tough new legislation and binding targets to end sewage pollution”, he adds.
Simon Parsons, a director with Scottish Water, says that these CSOs “remain a vital relief mechanism to relieve the pressure on the sewer network safely.” Still, he adds that “It’s not about building bigger and bigger sewers, that is not going to solve the problem.”
Citing climate change to affect the intensity of rainfall and storms in Scotland, Parson says, “We have to stop that surface water getting into our systems”.
With climate change projected to bring in more heavy rainfalls and intense storms, the risk for overflows and flooding will also increase.
Local authorities and water companies should think of new approaches to managing increases in precipitation.
Meanwhile, regulators have a tough job of ensuring water companies comply with laws and standards around sewer networks and overspills.