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Southern Water appears at Canterbury Crown Court to be sentenced over more than 50 pollution charges in Kent and Hampshire


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A water firm illegally pumped “enormous volumes” of raw sewage into Kent’s coast in a bid to make money, a court heard.

The Environment Agency allows water firms to discharge a limited amount of untreated waste into rivers and seas.

A Southern Water Pumping Station. Picture: Peter Still
A Southern Water Pumping Station. Picture: Peter Still

But Southern Water last year admitted 51 counts of dumping poisonous, noxious substances including raw sewage, after a criminal investigation.

It knowingly polluted The Swale and rivers near Southampton and in the South Downs for 61,714 hours from 17 sewage works, prosecutors explained today.

“What it was doing was avoiding the cost of those operations it was being paid for, and it was doing that by sending a proportion of what it was receiving out to the sea,” barrister Andrew Marshall told Canterbury Crown Court.

“It has been shown the company has chosen to discharge raw untreated sewage into the environment.”

“Enormous volumes” of sewage entered waters under “long term corporate knowledge”, with more than 6,000 unlawful incidents between 2010-2015, Mr Marshall added.

Southern knowingly polluted The Swale, and rivers near Southampton and in the South Downs. Picture: James Hughes
Southern knowingly polluted The Swale, and rivers near Southampton and in the South Downs. Picture: James Hughes

“It is serious, it was known about and permitted at a high level in the company,

“There are thousands of permit breaches, each of which are serious – it was widespread because the workforce was involved,” he continued.

The court heard the Environment Agency launched Operation Garden after oyster beds and other shellfish flesh began deteriorating in North Kent.

A probe revealed unprecedented levels of faecal matter in The Swale during 2014, with the pollution stretching as far as Herne Bay.

The waterways are heavily protected as areas of special scientific interest and were also safeguarded by European law at the time.

“It has been shown the company has chosen to discharge raw untreated sewage into the environment...”

Mr Marshall explained Southern Water “under-reported” the amount of effluent flowing from its storm tanks, causing investigators to become “puzzled” as to the source of the spills.

A probe would later reveal it was unlawfully emptying sewage from storm tanks in Eastchurch, Swalecliffe, Queenborough, Sittingbourne, Teynham, Herne Bay and Whitstable.

It means the firm unleashed the equivalent of 7.4 years of waste from a single site, when combined with the pollution near Southampton and in the South Downs, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson heard.

One Southampton site alone was responsible for 1 billion litres of untreated sewage, the equivalent of 371 Olympic sized swimming pools, the court heard.

Represented by Richard Matthews QC, Southern Water is yet to argue its case during the sentencing hearing, expected to last four days.

Southern came under fire after waste was released into the seat between Margate Main Sands and Joss Bay after the Foreness Pumping Station was hit by lightning last month. Picture: Matt Bristow
Southern came under fire after waste was released into the seat between Margate Main Sands and Joss Bay after the Foreness Pumping Station was hit by lightning last month. Picture: Matt Bristow

A separate investigation into the firm is ongoing, the court heard.

One of the UK’s largest utility companies, it supplies water and treats sewage for about 4.7 million people in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

In 2019, the financial watchdog Ofwat fined the company £126 million after ruling it had “deliberately misreported data”, and doctored water samples, for seven years to 2017 to boost profits.

It was also accused of poor data keeping on two previous occasions.

More recently, Southern Water came under fire after waste was released into the sea between Margate Main Sands and Joss Bay in Broadstairs after Foreness Pumping Station was hit by lightning last month.

The sentencing hearing continues.

To read more of our in depth coverage of all of the major trials coming out of crown and magistrates' courts across the county, click here.

For information on how we can report on court proceedings, click here.

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