The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has blasted the British water industry, saying that releasing sewage into waterways was a “pre-Victorian” approach which had caused alarming levels of river pollution.
MPs on the cross-party committee have been hearing evidence for a year from water companies, scientists and environmentalists.
The report concluded that a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic is polluting many of the country’s rivers and that no river in England could be given a clean bull of health.
Just 14 percent are classified as reaching the minimum “good” status according to Environment Agency data. MPs cited research from the Wildlife and Countryside Link that found river water quality in England was amongst the worst in Europe.
Successive governments, regulators and the nation’s water companies were all criticised in the report. They were accused of turning a “blind eye” to sewage pollution in England and Wales, accepting “pre-Victorian practices” of allowing raw effluent to flow into rivers.
Rules surrounding the dumping of sewage into rivers and seas were relaxed last autumn following problems importing chemicals used in the treatment of wastewater.
In response to the UK’s new relationship with the EU, Covid-19 and other supply chain failures, the Environment Agency introduced a waiver enabling companies to seek permission for bypassing sections of the treatment process.
One incident which gained national attention in October saw thousands of litres of untreated sewage being released into Langstone Harbour in Hampshire for 49 hours. Footage of the dumping sparked an outcry over the practice of discharging wastewater into rivers and seas.
The report called for the current overflow permit system allowing this to be tightened so that sewage can only be dumped when strictly necessary, such as during genuine extreme weather events.
It recommended that by the end of 2022, water companies be obliged to publish all data on spill duration and volume every 15 minutes in an easy accessible format. This would help prevent the frequent misreporting of large spills.
The committee said that monitoring of rivers in England and Wales also fell woefully below the requirements of the 21st century. Infrequent spot checks were not nearly enough to give a clear picture of the extent of pollution.
These checks had not been updated to identify modern-day pollutants such as microplastics, newer chemicals and microbial resistant pathogens – all of which have the potential to harm human and animal health.
Water regulator Ofwat was said by the report to be: “Focused on security of water supply and on keeping bills down, with insufficient emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system in England is fit for the 21st century.”
There was “no quick fix to decades of under-investment,” the report said. It recommended Ofwat prioritise investment to boost water quality and limit bonus payments to executives at water companies who breach overflow permits as a deterrence.
Fines for water companies, farmers and other industries that pollute rivers should also be increased, whether caused by deliberate releases or through incidents such as a slow response to leaks requiring emergency wastewater pipe repair.
In response to the report on British river pollution, Ofwat said it was waiting on the recommendations of an Environment Agency investigation into non-compliance with regulations by sewage treatment works.
The regulator added: “Water companies’ performance in releasing sewage into the environment isn’t acceptable.”
Water UK – which represents water companies in the United Kingdom – said: “We support the committee’s urgent call for action to improve the health of England’s rivers. Now is the time to have an honest conversation about whether the current approach is adequate for addressing the challenges faced by our environment.”
The River Trust welcomed the findings of the report, saying: “This lifts the lid on the causes of chronic river pollution from outdated, underfunded monitoring systems and widespread agricultural run-off issues, to unchecked sewage pollution and a lack of political will to empower the Environment Agency to affect real positive change for our rivers.”