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Southern Water boss Ian McAulay confirms 'heads rolled' after huge sewage leaks into rivers and sea in Kent


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The boss of under-fire Southern Water confirmed "heads rolled" after colossal and deliberate sewage spills in Kent.

Ian McAulay inherited a "big headache" when he became chief executive in 2017 in the shape of legal cases relating to almost 7,000 discharges of billions of litres of untreated sewage.

Ian McAulay addresses the committee
Ian McAulay addresses the committee

He told the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee he was still "very angry" about the situation.

Some, now former, members of staff oversaw a deliberate dumping of vast quantities of sewage for the purpose of avoiding the cost of recycling and upgrading infrastructure.

Up to 10,000 contaminated oysters are believed to have entered the food chain, dogs became violently ill after swimming, ships were damaged and one home was almost flooded.

Untreated sewage was discharged into rivers for the equivalent of seven years, with the company fined £90 million – the equivalent of half a penny per litre – following a court case in July.

The Environment Agency was hindered in its investigation by staff who stopped them taking away files and touring sites.

Protestors in Whitstable call for Southern Water to stop discharging sewage into the sea, at an event on Saturday, October 9. Picture: Andrew Hastings
Protestors in Whitstable call for Southern Water to stop discharging sewage into the sea, at an event on Saturday, October 9. Picture: Andrew Hastings

When asked by Tory MP Robert Goodwill if "heads rolled" and people were sacked following the scandal Mr McAulay simply answered "yes".

"The behaviours were inexcusable," he said.

He confirmed "the rot" went right up to "one level below me", with that unnamed individual sacked.

When pushed for the reasons behind their actions he said: "There were a small number of people involved. I still can't truly explain why they did it. They were not making significant financial gain. It was kept from the board.

"There was a strange gaming type approach. They then influenced other people."

He said he believed Southern has changed since the scandal, adding: "The Environment Agency says there has been a transformation of culture."

Later in the hearing Mr McAulay and the heads of three other water companies confirmed they would work together to check if any of these disgraced ex-employees were still working in the industry.

He was also asked about the latest spills which resulted in 14 beaches being shut.

They were caused by an electrical fault but due to upgrades in monitoring he said the fault was spotted "within a minute" and fixed in two hours, with thousands of litres of sewage leaking for 80 minutes into the sea near Joss Bay.

Video footage appears to show sewage floating in the sea at Whitstable. Picture: Sarah Hammond Thornby
Video footage appears to show sewage floating in the sea at Whitstable. Picture: Sarah Hammond Thornby

Due to the tide, 13 nearby beaches were also shut and crews spent six days trudging the coast inspecting them. Sewage washed ashore only in Joss Bay.

Mr McAulay admitted Southern's response was "better but still not acceptable".

He said Southern is now committed to full transparency, publishing details of all leaks.

It also now operates a whistle-blowing system for staff.

When asked by chairman the Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP (Con) whether a system of fixing the rate of fines to the number of litres spilled he said he was "prepared to look at it" but stressed "97.1%" of waste spilled was "rain water and ground water".

SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury
SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury

A zero pollution target by 2030 was ambitious but would be tricky to achieve, agreed the four water bosses.

Earlier in the session when asked if they would swim in the nation's rivers, not one of which is in good ecological condition, all said they would.

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