A COURT has handed Thames Water Utilities the UK’s largest ever fine for water pollution, after it released 1.4bn l of raw sewage into waterways in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire from 2012–2014.
Thames Water will have to pay a fine of £19.75m (US$24.6m) and more than £600,000 in costs, after pleading guilty at Aylesbury Crown Court to the unlawful discharge of pollution and breaching ammonia levels. According to court documents, the discharge killed fish, birds and other aquatic wildlife, and put some fishermen out of business. There was visible sewage along 14 km of the River Thames and its tributaries. Events such as sailing regattas had to be cancelled, and riverside residents and farmers were adversely affected. 1.4bn l of sewage would fill 560 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The incidents took place at six Thames Water sewage treatment works. At Aylesbury, the company committed two offences, deliberately bypassing the treatment process to discharge sewage directly into the River Thame, a Thames tributary, and diverting poorly treated sewage away from an authorised outfall to a disused and unauthorised land treatment area, which made its way into the river. Sewage which flowed into the River Thames from Henley sewage treatment works damaged a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), killing fish and invertebrates. Near Didcot sewage treatment works, a member of the public reported seeing “a black cloud” of sewage in the water, including toilet paper, sanitary towels and solid matter, while extensive sewage fungus was found in the water. There were also illegal discharges from Littlemore sewage pumping station and Arborfield sewage treatment works.
The most serious pollution incident ever recorded on the Thames occurred at Little Marlow sewage treatment works, attracting more than 100 public complaints about sewage in the water between November 2013 and December 2013. The pollution was blamed on poor maintenance, management and a lack of investment.
The case was brought by the Environment Agency, which said that sewage was diverted away from treatment processes and into the river, despite the flow being within the capacity of the treatment works. At times, less than half of incoming sewage was treated. The Agency said there was a “catalogue of failures” on the part of Thames Water, which ignored risks highlighted by its own staff, and failed to react properly to the high priority alarms which should have alerted them to serious problems at the site.
“Water and sewerage companies provide a vital service to the community. Where they experience problems through no fault of their own we will always work with them to resolve them but where negligence causes serious pollution, or a serious threat to the environment, we will seek the strongest possible penalties,” said Environment Agency CEO Sir James Bevan. “This case sends a clear signal to the industry that safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how all companies must now operate.”
Judge Francis Sheridan described the incidents as “a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs”, and said that the fine must come out of the company’s own finances and not be passed onto the consumer.
“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees […] It should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions,” he said, adding: “One has to get the message across to the shareholders that the environment is to be treasured and protected, and not poisoned.”
Thames Water says that the number of pollution incidents at its sites has halved since 2013, while CEO Steve Robertson expressed his deep regret, saying that from 2012-14, the company’s performance was not up to its own high standards.
“Since then we’ve reviewed how we do things at all levels and made a number of key changes. These have included increasing the numbers of staff in key operational roles and investing heavily to improve reliability. As a result, our performance has significantly improved. We understand our huge responsibilities to the environment, have learned from these serious events, and continue to invest at the rate of around £20m a week on continually improving our service to our customers and the environment,” he added.
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