Sewage dumping rules have been relaxed by the UK government and the Environment Agency amid a potential shortage of treatment chemicals, allowing wastewater plants to release effluent into rivers and seas.
Strict rules normally govern the dumping of treated sewage from a treatment works to surface water or groundwater. Under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, a permit is needed which ensures that the effluent being discharged has undergone a thorough process and can be safely returned to nature.
The Environment Agency said in a statement that because of the UK’s new relationship with the EU, Covid-19 and other supply chain failures, they were introducing a waiver enabling treatment plants to bypass sections of the procedure.
Companies who ran out of the chemical ferric sulphate – used in the third stage of the wastewater treatment process – would be able to discharge sewage without completing that parts of the cleansing process.
The temporary relaxation of the rules is set to last until the end of the year. In their statement, the Environment Agency said that move would allow for “discharges from wastewater treatment works that cannot comply with permit conditions because of an unavoidable shortages of chemicals to treat effluent”.
Any company wishing to dump sewage into seas and rivers must first receive approval from both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency, who will be checking compliance.
Water treatment plants in the UK are divided into three grades. The lowering of standards only applies to those deemed low-risk and medium-risk.
Although no water company is yet to report running out of ferric sulphate, the decision to drop standards has been made as a preventative move.
The causes listed by the Environment Industry are in addition to a chronic lack of lorry drivers, disrupting supply chains in various industries.
These include Nandos restaurants who ran out of chicken, McDonalds who were unable to sell milkshakes, JD Wetherspoons where beer shortages were reported and IKEA stores missing up to 1000 unavailable items.
The Chemical Business Association said that is has been warning Boris Johnson, transport secretary Grant Shapps and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng for three months about potential disruption to critical chemicals needed by the water and farming industries.
Understandably, allowing sewage to be discharged without being fully treated has drawn sharp criticism. Britain’s waterways are already suffering; a 2020 report from the Environment Agency revealed that every river, lake and stream in the UK was suffering from some form of pollution.
Water companies came in for a particularly hard time in the report. It said they had pumped raw sewage into rivers nearly 300,000 times in 2019-20 as part of storm overflows, an increase of 2,200 percent on such incidents over the past four years.
Storm overflows are permitted during exceptional weather events, such as torrential rain or storms. Water companies are allowed to release wastewater from sewer overflows to prevent rising water levels leading to waste flooding into streets, homes and businesses.
When used at appropriate times, the increased rainwater will dilute the sewage as it sloshes through drains. If the wastewater cannot be diluted or is released at the wrong times, then it enters rivers and streams where it is harmful to the environment and anyone enjoying the water.
The report added that pollution levels in rivers, streams and lakes in England were worse in 2020 than they were during the 1990s when water treatment works would dump foul water into rivers on a regular basis.