Southern Water fined £330,000 after stream pollution killed 2,000 fish

Article by Amanda Jasi

A UK court has fined Southern Water £330,000 (US$416,748) for a raw sewage leak in July 2019 that killed almost 2,000 fish near areas designated to protect nature. An alarm alerted the company to an issue early in the day, but they failed to act, allowing the spill to last for as much as 20 hours.

The leak was caused by faulty equipment at the Little Bull pumping station, allowing untreated effluent to enter the environment at Waltham Chase at the edge of the South Downs. Relay equipment at the pumping station was wrongly programmed, causing a pump to fail which was exacerbated when another failed to start.

As a result, sewage and other hazardous substances were diverted through two manholes, across fields, and into the Shawford Lake Stream. As well as killing 1,954 fish, the pollution caused ammonia levels in the water 25 times the legal limit. The incident also disrupted a popular outdoor activity centre, forcing them to cancel more than 1,000 water sports bookings.

The Environmental Agency (EA) was notified that untreated sewage, solids, and tissue was entering the stream by a member of the public at around noon on the day of the incident. It was later revealed that Southern Water had had the opportunity to act much sooner, as an alarm sounded at 7am, alerting them of the pump failure.

Investigators believe that the illegal flow continued for between five and 20 hours.

Dawn Theaker, environment manager in Hampshire for the EA, said: “Yet again, we have a water company failing to properly respond to alarms when things go wrong at facilities they operate, allowing sewage to flow uncontrolled into fields and a stream. The court agreed with our case that Southern Water was negligent.

“Any pollution is unacceptable, but this one happened close to a Site of Special Scientific Interest and other designations meant to provide greater protection for nature.”

Robbie Moore, minister for water and rural growth, noted that the fine would be paid to the government’s Water Restoration Fund, which uses money raised from penalties on water companies to protect and clean up waterways.

He added: “We are delivering the changes people want to see: more investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement on water companies. This includes our proposals to ban water company executive bonuses, and we recently gave the Environment Agency greater powers to impose uncapped civil penalties on polluters.”

As well as the £330,000 penalty, Southern Water was ordered to pay the Environment Agency’s costs of £18,764 and a victim surcharge of £181.

The fine follows Southern Water pleading guilty to one breach of the Environment Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 regarding pollution and operation of the Little Bull pumping station, on or around 21 July 2019. In 2021, Southern Water was fined £90m for illegal sewage discharges that caused widespread pollution of rivers and coastal waters off Kent, Surrey, and Sussex.

Lobbying for higher bills and lower penalties

Southern Water is not alone in making headlines in recent years, with the UK water industry gaining notoriety for discharging sewage into the environment. The EA said more than £150m worth of fines have been generated since 2015 on the back of prosecuting water companies for water pollution incidents.

In 2017, Thames Water was hit with a near-£20m fine for unlawful discharging and breaching ammonia levels, and continues to lag in performance, including with regards to its leakage commitments. Despite its poor performance, the Financial Times reports that Thames Water has been lobbying the government and industry regulator Ofwat to allow it to increase bills, pay lower fines, and continue paying dividends, as it seeks to avoid falling into administration.

BBC News reports that Ofwat advised the water company to focus on efforts to improve operational and environmental performance, and secure shareholder backing to improve its financial resilience.  

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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