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Environmental Audit Committee MPs conclude water companies are misreporting sewage spills into rivers and the sea


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MPs say they are alarmed that water companies are regularly discharging sewage into rivers and the sea in breach of regulations.

A damning report examining water quality in rivers and the sea says more sewage is being discharged than water companies claim.

Litter-pickers on Thanet beaches that were closed to swimming after sewage was pumped into the water in an emergency discharge. Picture: Mike Pett
Litter-pickers on Thanet beaches that were closed to swimming after sewage was pumped into the water in an emergency discharge. Picture: Mike Pett

A cross-party committee of MPs says water companies are misreporting sewage spills and that the true number of sewer overflow discharges may be much higher than is being reported to the Environment Agency.

The report comes as a public meeting due to take place last night to discuss water quality in Thanet and the contamination of seawater last summer was postponed because so many people wanted to attend.

In their report, published today, the MPs say there needs to be an urgent review.

“Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers regularly, often breaching the terms of permits that only allow this in exceptional circumstances,” says the report.

It concludes an urgent review of water companies’ self-monitoring is needed.

A sign warning people not to go on the beach below the high water mark after sewage was pumped into the sea. Picture: Mike Pett
A sign warning people not to go on the beach below the high water mark after sewage was pumped into the sea. Picture: Mike Pett

MPs called for water quality details to be made public much more frequently, saying few river users are able to make informed decisions about when it is safe to use rivers downstream of storm overflows and wastewater treatment works.

The report recommends that the Environment Agency works with water companies to ensure that easily accessible information on sewage discharges, in as near to real time as possible, is made publicly available.

The MPs are also calling on the government to actively encourage the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing in each water company area by 2025.

Concerns over water quality around the Kent coast and rivers came under scrutiny last year when Southern Water was fined a staggering £90 million after sewage dumps.

The company was fined for deliberately misreporting the performance of its sewage treatment works and for dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea over several years.

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In total, it admitted to nearly 7,000 illegal spills from 17 sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex.

The £90 million fine – given in 2021 – was the highest ever awarded by a court for a sewage discharge permit breach.

MPs say there is a ‘chemical cocktail' polluting English rivers that is putting public health and nature at risk.

And they conclude poor water quality in English rivers is a result of chronic underinvestment and multiple failures in monitoring, governance and enforcement.

The Environmental Audit Committee warns today just 14% of English rivers meet good ecological status, with pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics contributing to a dangerous ‘chemical cocktail’ coursing through our waterways.

Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.

Philip Dunne MP, chair of the committee, said: “Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality.

"For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure."

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