Published: 12:20, 19 December 2016
A water company has been fined a massive £2 million after untreated sewage polluted the sea and beach at Margate.
The waste water pumping station, operated by Southern Water, became “overwhelmed” on May 30 2012 following a heavy storm.
Maidstone Crown Court heard the pumping station was not operating as efficiently as it should have been.
As a result large amounts of sewage including tissue, sanitary pads, condoms and wipes were strewn across Thanet beaches.
There was similar pollution on June 2 when the “inlet penstock” at the pumping station was left in manual mode after the first incident, instead of auto.
The station flooded and there were further discharges into the sea and onto the beach.
Imposing the fine today, Judge Adele Williams said: “The message must go out to directors and shareholders that repeated offending of this nature is wholly unacceptable.
"We apologise unreservedly for the failure of the waste water pumping station at Foreness Point near Margate" - Simon Oates, Southern Water director
“Pollution of East Kent beaches in this manner is wholly unacceptable behaviour.”
The company, which admitted causing or knowingly permitting a water discharge activity otherwise under and to the extent authorised by an environmental permit contrary to regulations, was given 28 days to pay the fine.
The court heard the company had 160 previous convictions for environmental offences, three of which involve pollution in Kent.
Prosecutor Richard Banwell said the pollution on June 1 was on a Bank Holiday when the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations were taking place.
The beaches were closed for swimming for nine days and impacted on businesses and local residents.
Mr Banwell said analysis of the flow to treatment pumps showed they had failed to reach the levels required under the permit during the entire period between August 17 2011 and September 25 2012.
“Efforts to remedy the problem were self-evidently inadequate in spite of the fact the company has already been prosecuted for numerous breaches of permit between January and July 2011, due to failures of the flow to treatment pumps,” he continued.
“Southern Water Services maintained the pumping station was overwhelmed during the first storm event by the levels of incoming flow, which they assessed as greater than would be expected by the design of the pumping station.
“As a result, even a fully functioning pumping station would have made no difference to the outcome.
“The Environment Agency does not accept that position as it is not supported by the model upon which the operation of the pumping station was based, the meteorological radar data and subsequent flood event estimation.
“Furthermore, the heaviest rainfall fell over a sewer network that is predominantly ‘foul’ only sewers.
"SWS accepted that the failure of the pumping station during the second storm event was due to human error and should not have occurred.”
Judge Williams said problems with pumping had been ongoing since December 2010, leading up to the “major pollution event”.
“The Environment Agency described this event as a catastrophic pollution incident, and I agree with that description,” she said.
People described feeling nauseous and physically sick by what they saw. Residents were angry and disgusted at the situation.
"The failures to contain sewage resulted in risk to public health, polluted a considerable length of coastline, including numerous beaches, and resulted in a negative impact on Thanet" - Julie Foley, Environment Agency
It was not without significance, said the judge, that pollution happened over the Bank Holiday of Jubilee celebrations in the whole area.
“Not only did the company act without the urgency required, but displayed some complacency and behaved in a dilatory way,” said Judge Williams.
“Not surprisingly, an extremely negative image was portrayed to the public in general and those who wished to enter the area. The incident received a good deal of press coverage.
“In short, the pumps were inadequate and had not been functioning as they should have been for many months.
“The pumps were not operating at the capacity they were required to because of a design fault identified back as far as December 2010. The company was slow to respond to the situation.”
The company spent £350,000 to clear up the beaches and paid £36,700 in compensation to local businesses affected. Just under £6 million had been spent on improvements.
The pumping station will now be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Judge Williams said despite the problems with the pumping station being identified as long ago as 2010, the company did no more than the minimum to ensure there were no discharges.
“The company failed to come to grips with the situation,” she said. “They were slow to respond on this occasion.
“This displays an unacceptable level of complacency. The fact they have now put in place measures and have an on-site manager and responsible team 24 hours a day lead this court to conclude these measures should have been put in place at the very least after the first incident in 2011.
“The court also finds it difficult to understand how directors and shareholders of this company can be satisfied with the record of convictions for environmental offences this company has.”
The company’s latest turnover was £803.7 million with a profit after tax of £119.9 million. The directors received substantial remuneration. No dividend had been paid for the last two years.
Judge Williams had previously fined the company £200,000 and £500,000 for pollution offences.
“The offences were committed in an environmentally sensitive area affecting a coastline renowned for its beauty and amenity,” she said.
“This is a very large organisation. The culpability is negligence. The company has been guilty of repeated operational failures suggestive of lack of management attention.
“This is the third time the defendant company has appeared before this court and pleaded guilty to offences which have caused major pollution to Kent beaches.
“This is the worst example of pollution in the three cases this court has dealt with.”
After the hearing, Southern Water director Simon Oates said: "We apologise unreservedly for the failure of the waste water pumping station at Foreness Point near Margate.
"Since 2012 we have invested £4 million in the site and have a further £6 million investment plan. We’re working hard with partners such as the Environment Agency and Thanet District Council to ensure that the areas bathing water is cleaner than ever.
"Thanet's beaches are some of the best in the country, boasting seven blue flags and three seaside awards. Many now consistently achieve ‘excellent’ bathing water quality alongside 'excellent' status in tourism surveys.
"We will continue to invest in the site and work with our partners to ensure Thanet’s bathing waters are clean now and in the future."
Madeline Homer, CEO of Thanet District Council, added: "This is clearly a regrettable incident which impacted on the area and I am pleased that Southern Water has taken full responsibility for it today.
"I am however extremely heartened that in recent years Southern Water has made significant investment to improve the site and is taking a much more collaborative approach to ensuring that Thanet’s bathing waters continue to improve and are amongst the highest quality in the country."
Julie Foley, Environment Agency area manager, said: "Southern Water unlawfully discharged huge volumes of sewage onto the beach and into the sea; the Environment Agency will prosecute in such serious cases.
"The failures to contain sewage resulted in risk to public health, polluted a considerable length of coastline, including numerous beaches, and resulted in a negative impact on Thanet, which is an area heavily reliant on the local tourism economy.
"We urge companies and individuals to report any concerns about pollution to the Environment Agency’s 24/7 hotline so we can respond: 0800 80 70 60."