Hillside streams dangerously polluted by raw effluents: Implementing 'misguided' European directives is expected to result in a failure to meet targets. Nicholas Schoon reports

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RAW sewage is never pretty. But it is at its most offensive when it pollutes a hillside stream which has only just begun its journey to the sea, writes Nicholas Schoon.

Little Beck begins in the moors above Bingley, West Yorkshire, and flows down to the River Aire through the suburb of Gilstead. Below a path, in woods and fields where locals like to walk, lies a storm sewage outfall routinely trickling filth into the stream. Plastic fragments, rubber and 'sewage solids' flushed away in nearby homes is liberally distributed immediately downstream.

Another stream, West Brook beck, runs through Bradford University campus, a few miles away. Grey fungus, the kind that feeds on sewage, blankets its bed and the stench is unmistakeable at the place where the stream goes underground. Danger notices warn of contaminated water.

The National Rivers Authority wants the metropolitan rivers and streams of the North-west, Yorkshire and the West Midlands cleaned of sewage as quickly as possible. It starves the rivers of oxygen and causes high levels of toxic ammonia.

The authority can and has prosecuted in the worst cases. But it has to proceed mainly by negotiation and agreement with the industry. The industry's financial regulator, Ofwat, and John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, have the last words on what the priorities are, how swiftly the clean-up must proceed and how rapidly the bills must rise.

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