16.10.23

We must not be billed twice for unlawful sewage pollution

2 minute read / Guy Linley-Adams
 
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Raw, untreated sewage is discharged into English rivers on a daily basis because of a failure to invest in infrastructure that meets the needs of increasing demand. ©GettyImages

The effects of population growth, new housing developments and climate change will inevitably put strain on sewage works. It isn’t an option to think that sewage works designed in the 1970s or earlier will still be able to cope in the 2020s. Larger towns and more people equal more sewage. 

This should have been taken into account by water companies and the Government’s regulators (OFWAT and the Environment Agency) in the way they regulate the industry to ensure that the system can cope with demand and that water companies themselves comply with the law. This is specifically relevant to a set of Regulations dating from 1994 (which reflect a European Directive from 1991) which set out minimum standards for the collection and treatment of ‘urban wastewater’. Sewage to you and me.

Campaigning to stop sewage pollution has been going on for many years, decades even. But, it was the superb work done by Philip Dunne MP in bringing forward his Private Member’s Bill in 2021 to tackle the growing problem of illegal sewage discharges, and the power of data analysis unleashed by Professor Peter Hammond, that kick-started the recent furore.

In July, WildFish challenged the Government’s Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction plan in the High Court. We lost the case, but in doing so, we have clarified the law. The key point is this. The Government and its regulators must enforce the 1994 Regulations. There is no discretion here. They must enforce the law and they must do it urgently.

OFWAT and the EA need to show their teeth and force the water companies to do what they are required to do by law – treat all sewage before discharge, except after exceptional rainfall, when sewers may flood. The key word here is ‘exceptional’. The default position is that it is unlawful to discharge raw sewage under any other weather conditions.

The endless spilling of untreated sewage into our rivers and coastal waters shows water companies have not been complying with the law.

Guy-Linley Adams

Solicitor at WildFish

Most importantly, it has now been firmly established that the water companies cannot pass the costs of dealing with the huge number of currently illegal discharges onto ordinary bill-payers.

Regularly, water companies certify to OFWAT that they have sufficient finances to meet their statutory obligations. In simple speak, they have already been paid to comply with the 1994 Regulations. They cannot now seek to bill us all again.

 

By: Guy Linley-Adams
Solicitor
We must not be billed twice for unlawful sewage pollution - Wildfish
 
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