Britain's beaches left to wait for sewage clean-up

Hopes are fading that water companies will meet an EU deadline to treat effluent discharged near resorts. Nicholas Schoon reports
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The Independent Online
Sewage from many of Britain's best known coastal resorts will receive only rudimentary treatment before being pumped into the sea under government plans to clean up bathing beaches.

Several of these sewage treatment schemes could also be delivered beyond their legal 2000 deadline because of wrangles between water companies and the industry's regulators about the degree of clean-up needed and who pays for it.

In theory, Britain should be moving smoothly towards completing the £2bn programme of coastal sewage treatment improvements needed to comply with European Union laws over the next five years and remove raw sewage from beaches. In practice, the programme is beset with uncertainties.

Under the EU's urban wastewater treatment directive, sewage discharged into the sea should receive primary and biological treatment, as happens for inland rivers.This is much more expensive than pumping raw effluent several hundred yards out to sea.

Primary treatment means first allowing the most noxious, solid fraction of the waste to fall out in settlement tanks. Biological treatment involves micro- organisms breaking down the wastes in the dirty water that remains. All EU nations have agreed to bring in both treatments by 2000 for coastal towns with more than 15,000 people.

But there is a money saving let-out which the British government, worried about soaring water bills, played a leading role in negotiating. Primary treatment only will be needed along coastlines deemed to be "areas of high natural dispersion", where strong tides and currents rapidly disperse the foul water.

Some of Britain's best known resorts are in these areas - including Newquay, Weymouth, Bognor Regis, Brighton, Eastbourne, Bridlington and Scar- borough. Councils covering Brighton, Bridlington and Scarborough have decided primary treatment alone is not good enough and are campaigning for biological treatment.

Guy Adams, of Friends of the Earth, said: ``Primary treatment might be justifiable on parts of the Atlantic coast. But the eastern coastline should have full sewage treatment - the North Sea is already too polluted.''

Final decisions on almost all these high dispersion areas have not yet been made. First the local water companies have to carry out studies which prove the sewage effluent will be diluted quickly enough to avoid environmental damage. Then they must convince the Government's water pollution watchdog, the National Rivers Authority (NRA) that only primary treatment is needed.

At most resorts the water companies will succeed, but several disputes are expected. In Lyme Regis, St Ives and Margate it has already been agreed that there will be biological treatment. But elsewhere, the water companies will say that a tough funding regime laid down last year by the industry's regulator, Ofwat, means they cannot raise bills enough to pay for the extra spending required.

If the dispute cannot be resolved a complex and time- consuming appeal procedure will be invoked in which the NRA can be over- ruled, with the Department of the Environment making a final decision. Since it takes several years to plan and build a sewage works, any delays would lead to the 2000 deadline being missed, Britain would then face prosecution by the European Commission.

The NRA has challenged a government plan to delay works at Dartmouth, Mevagissey,Torbay and Falmouth to help to slow the region's rise in water bills, which had been running at 11 per cent a year above inflation. But now the NRA says the works should go ahead at Falmouth and Torbay. South West Water, in turn, is expected to argue that for it to comply, Ofwat will have to allow bills to rise.