Filthy Thames could wreck Games bid

The EU is taking legal action against Britain over the amount of sewage pumped into a river that is meant to play a leading part in the capital's Olympic bid
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Britain's hopes of attracting the Olympics are being jeopardised by legal action over massive and systematic pollution of the Thames with millions of tons of raw sewage.

Britain's hopes of attracting the Olympics are being jeopardised by legal action over massive and systematic pollution of the Thames with millions of tons of raw sewage.

The European Commission has begun official proceedings against the Government for allowing vast amounts of untreated muck regularly to spill into the river from the capital's antiquated sewers, leading to comparisons with conditions in the Third World.

The action - the first step in launching a prosecution against Britain in the European Court - could not come at a worse time for London's bid for the Games. The International Olympic Committee, which picks the 2012 venue in little over a month, makes a point of giving environmental considerations particular weight in making a decision.

Tony Blair last week announced he would fly to Singapore to join England football captain David Beckham in lobbying the committee on the day before it makes its choice. The bid is being hailed as the "greenest ever": it contains a host of measures to promote public transport, cut waste, and create the "largest new urban park in Europe for 150 years" in the lower Lea Valley.

Top government and London figures are privately dismayed at the damage that the commission's intervention is likely to do to the capital's chances, by tarnishing these green credentials. But the EC insists that its job is to enforce European pollution law without taking such "external circumstances" into account.

And one senior government source admits: "There is a risk that the day of the opening ceremony could be marked by filth floating up and down the river, and fish dying all over the place."

The EC's action - under its 1991 Urban Waste Water directive - has been provoked by the discharge of some 20 million tons of sewage, paper, condoms and syringes into the Thames each year from so-called "storm water overflows" which act as safety valves for the mid-19th-century sewerage system.

The waste is flushed into the river some 50 or 60 times a year, killing thousands of fish, says the Environment Agency. Canoeists are officially warned to stay off the water, after some became ill and were taken to hospital.

The Government's Health Protection Agency is conducting a year-long study into the health hazards. Professor Roy Playford, an expert in gastric illness at Imperial College London, has likened the state of the Thames to rivers in poor countries.

Now, after complaints from angling and environmental groups, Julio Garcia Burgues, head of the EC's environmental infringements unit, has written to ministers initiating legal action. He has asked them for their "observations": if these do not satisfy Brussels, Britain could be prosecuted.

Ministers have replied that they have commissioned a study of relatively small-scale improvements to sewage works and storm overflows. But they have refused to endorse the long-term solution, promoted by Thames Water - a 25-mile-long, 25ft-wide tunnel under the river to take away London's sewage. The Treasury and Ofwat, the water regulator, have opposed the £2bn tunnel on the grounds that it will drive up water rates.

Last night, Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee said: "The Government has prevaricated far too long. Now its failure to act is imperilling the Olympics."

A spokesman for London 2012 said it had "no evidence" the legal action would be relevant in deciding where the 2012 Games will be staged.