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Southern Water blames mechanical and technological faults on 17 sites for raw sewage dump


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Southern Water has denied willfully polluting protected coastal waters with huge volumes of raw sewage to boost profits.

The company told a judge today it dumped billions of litres in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, through “negligence” rather than systemic deliberate acts.

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

Southern awaits sentencing after admitting 51 violations of pollution law between 2010-2015 in the Environment Agency’s biggest investigation to date.

Prosecutors argue the firm acted “deliberately” to reap “considerable financial advantage”, while destroying oyster beds.

But its failings were due to shortcomings in necessary investments, which led to equipment failures and spills of wastewater, Richard Matthews QC explained.

A string of “deeply regretful” mechanical and technological faults across 17 sites between 2010-2015 were to blame, he said.

With shareholders having not received a boost in dividends, Mr Matthew labelled allegations Southern profiteered from systemic pollution as “completely unfounded”.

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

He told Canterbury Crown Court one illegal discharge, which happened at the Combined Sewer Overflow in Whitstable, was due to a technological failure when an unnamed company introduced new faulty software.

“Each site is different and undoubtedly if you pick one site, and say with the benefit of hindsight, ‘look you guys just should have put your hand in your pocket and spent that part of the budget on this.’

“There is no way we can provide an answer, other than perhaps it should have been done.

“The fact it wasn’t done needs to be seen in the context of this massive scope of this undertaking.

“It isn’t because someone made the decision to spend under the budgeted amount for capital investment, capital maintenance, someone decided we’re not going to borrow money instead were going to pay a dividend.”

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

“That dividend wasn’t paid and the budgets were spent.”

Instead, explained Mr Matthews, the company would plough profits to creditors as interest rates on borrowing ramped up, to help secure its future and plan a wholesale overhaul of its dated systems.

Southern has also been accused of purposefully misreporting the quantity of illegal effluent released into rivers and seas.

Yet Mr Matthews argued the failings stemmed from changes in information handling, after being ordered to streamline regular “data dumps”offloaded to the government for audit.

"Lots and lots of mistakes were made by people trying to translate that (data) into something useful for the Environment Agency,” he said.

The utility giant illegally discharged raw sewage into north Kent oyster beds, prompting the agency to launch Operation Garden, after shellfish were found deteriorating with high levels of faecal matter and Norovirus.

“That dividend wasn’t paid and the budgets were spent.”

Although there were no official cases of poisoning linked to the sewage, Mr Marshall, for the Environmental Agency, argued people who ate the oysters may have become unwell or died.

But the defences’ expert witness, Dr Belinda Stuart-Moonlight, told the court there is “no evidence” norovirus kills people: “For these reasons, and the likelihood of the norovirus getting to the oyster and then surviving, and being fed to a vulnerable person, I don’t see a plausible risk (of death).”

The firm dumped sewage into The Swale affecting Sheppey, Whitstable and Herne Bay, where waters are heavily protected to help maintain marine life and the ecosystem.

Raw sewage was also spilled into The Solent’s protected waters, between Southampton and Chichister.

Shellfish in both rivers were made unfit for human consumption and withdrawn from the market, but it is believed 9-10 thousand entered the human food chain, the court heards.

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Southern Water, which turned over £878m with a £213m profit in 2019/20, pleaded guilty last year to 51 counts of dumping poisonous, noxious substances including raw sewage, after a criminal investigation.

It polluted The Swale, The Solent and Beaulieu River in the South Downs for 61,714 hours, the court heard.

Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield has called for increased powers for the Environment Agency and condoned Southern Water.

“I have been contacted by lots of residents saying that they no longer feel able to swim in the sea or take their children or dogs for walks.

“Southern Water has put local people’s health at risk and their criminal behaviour will also have impacted on our local seafood industry,” she said.

Presiding judge Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson is expected to sentence the firm tomorrow.

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.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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