The UK Environment Agency (EA) and water regulator Ofwat have announced a major investigation into sewage treatment works, after several water companies admitted that they could be releasing illegal amounts of sewage into rivers and watercourses.
The investigation will investigate more than 2000 sewage treatment works and will fine or prosecute any company caught breaching their legal permits. The fines could amount to 10% of annual turnover for civil cases, or be unlimited in criminal proceedings, according to the EA.
Several water companies revealed that many of their sewage treatment works may be failing to meet current requirements after the EA asked companies to install new monitors at sewage treatment works.
The monitors check the right levels of wastewater are being treated before overflows are allowed to enter rivers or coastal waters.
However, many have admitted that they have been releasing wastewater directly into rivers, watercourses and the sea during heavy rain or storms to stop pipes becoming overloaded.
The investigation has been launched to look into all water and sewerage companies to assess the scale of the problem.
The EA and Ofwat have been pressing water companies to meet higher standards to protect the environment, and the government has previously said the amount of sewage discharged into waterways by water companies is unacceptable.
Emma Howard-Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: "Any water companies in breach of their permits are acting illegally. This is a major issue of public trust. Water company boards must certify every year that they have adequate resources to fulfil their regulated activities.
"Only now, just before new monitors are installed, have companies reported concerns due to potential problems. The EA has begun an immediate investigation of more than 2,000 sewage treatment works and will prosecute where necessary.
"The private sector is under increasing pressure to demonstrate tangible commitments on protecting the environment. This shows why we need robust and well-funded regulation to provide the public, investors and customers with assurances about what is being delivered on the ground."
The EA is calling for the levels of penalties for corporate environmental crime in England go up "significantly".
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"More attention should also be paid to the directors of companies that are guilty of repeated, deliberate or reckless breaches of environmental law. Such directors should be struck off and in the most grievous cases given custodial sentences," said Howard-Boyd.
Through the Environment Act, water companies are legally required to make progressive reductions in the adverse impacts of storm overflows.
The new monitors show the frequency and duration of sewage spills, which should normally happen only during heavy rainfall.
More than 12,000 of England’s 15,000 storm overflows now have Event Duration Monitors, and the remaining 3,000 will all have them by end 2023, according to the EA. All the data is published online, so the public can be aware of levels in their local area.
Jonson Cox, Chair of Ofwat, said: "Customers pay water companies to treat wastewater and protect and enhance rivers and wildlife. The public will be extremely disappointed if these reports are confirmed. Ofwat takes any reports of water companies breaking the law very seriously.
"We have launched an investigation relating to companies’ management of their wastewater treatment works which will examine any instance of systemic management failure, or the misreporting of data.
"If we find reason to act, Ofwat will use our full range of powers to hold companies to account for their failures and to require them to put things right in very short order."
The government has backed investment of around £1bn ($1.3bn) a year for water companies to improve the natural environment by increasing the capacity of wastewater systems to meet growing demand. In July it announced almost £3bn of extra funding for green recovery plans to deliver lasting environmental improvements.