Thursday, 31 March 2022

Sewage: Urgent plan to stop discharges into rivers and sea

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption,
Water companies have come under intense pressure over the amount of sewage discharged into rivers and the sea

The environment secretary has said the UK government is taking urgent action to reduce sewage discharges into rivers and the sea in England.

George Eustice unveiled a plan to curb pollution from the “most damaging” storm overflows by 75% by 2035, and 80% of all discharges by 2050.

Water firms are under pressure after 1,000 sewage spills a day were recorded in 2021.

They could face legal action after admitting possible illegal discharges.

The admission last year prompted a major government investigation into more than 2,200 sewage treatment works spanning all water and sewerage companies in England.

Mr Eustice said the government was investing £7bn until 2025 to upgrade sewage infrastructure but admitted water bills will rise by about £12 a year to cover costs beyond that.

The Liberal Democrats said the amount of sewage spillages was a “national scandal” and accused to government of “ignoring the country’s outrage”.

Labour said the country faced a “a dirty water emergency”, which it blamed on the Conservative government for allowing water companies “to dump raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas with impunity”.

New data released on Thursday showed that in 2021, there were more than 372,000 spill events from from storm overflows, which release untreated sewage and rainwater into the environment to ease pressure on the system.

The spill events monitored lasted more than 2.6 million hours overall last year, the data showed.

Water companies are allowed to discharge untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional circumstances – for example, during heavy rainfall.

They can, however, be acting illegally if they fail to meet certain requirements, such as treating enough wastewater before overflows are released into the environment.

The Environment Agency said the “state of our rivers is not in the condition we want” and “we are still seeing too much pollution from a number of sources”.

Tim Farron, rural affairs spokesperson for the Lib Dems, said the government “needs to get tough on these water companies” and proposed a sewage tax to make them “pay for cleaning up our rivers”.

Labour’s shadow environment minister Alex Sobel said his party had long been calling for better monitoring of sewage spills.

“The government’s U-turn on this issue is long overdue and we now hope to finally see proper action to clean up our water,” he said.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption,
The government is trying to reform how water companies deal with sewage discharges into the environment

On Thursday, the government announced what it called “a step change in how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage”.

A consultation, open until 12 May, will consider a number of measures, including:

Giving water companies time-limited targets for eliminating ecological harm from storm overflows
Details of how water companies will be expected to achieve these targets
An outline of other options to reduce the strain on the sewer system

Mr Eustice said the government was also putting in £7bn of investment until 2025, more than half of which was to deal with storm overflows.

After that, investment will be funded by increased charges for customers, which Mr Eustice said would equate to “around £12 per year for the average water bill payer”.

He said: “I know that’s an additional cost but obviously it’s a big investment undertaking to deal with this Victorian infrastructure, people want to see our water quality improving and it’s a cost that won’t present itself until after 2025.”

He said to fix the problem entirely “would require you to rip up the sewer systems in every town and village up and down the country and to completely rewire it and make huge investments” which, he said, some estimates suggested could cost as much as £600bn overall.

He said the government was doing the “right thing” by making “significant investments in the near term to tackle the most difficult and the most polluting storm overflows”.

Asked if he would swim in England’s waters now, Mr Eustice said that he does: “I represent a seat in Cornwall, we have the most beautiful beach: Hayle Beach…..Perhaps not at this time of year, but definitely in the summer.”

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