Water clean up under threat

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WATER bills must not be cut, MPs of all parties warned yesterday. They should be held level so that more money can be pumped into curbing sewage pollution on beaches and in rivers.

The cross-party House of Commons Environment Committee also launched a blistering attack on the two government regulators of England and Wales's water industry, Ofwat director general Ian Byatt and the Environment Agency.

Mr Byatt, said the MPs, was fixated on pushing through a price cut for water customers during the next price-setting exercise for the industry. But he was ignoring the bigger picture; that customers wanted higher standards and a cleaner environment. The Committee said it regretted "he chose to interpret his duty to customers only as protecting their pockets".

As r the Environment Agency, yesterday's report on sewage treatment and disposal suggests this is a weak green watchdog which suffers from being under-funded by government. The MPs criticised the attitude of one top agency official towards public openness as being "flippant and condescending". Their report says "one could be forgiven sometimes for imagining that the environment agency is a sub-branch of Ofwat."

The MPs found that standards for treating the 14 billion litres a day of sewage Britain produces had improved markedly since privatisation nine years ago. But that was only to be expected, since average bills to households for treatment had risen from pounds 64 in 1989-90 to pounds 123 this year. But there was a real need for further progress, and the Committee believes this can be achieved without price rises.

It says that by 2002, just four years away, all sewage should receive three levels of treatment which removes 99.9 per cent of bacteria in the final effluent as well as removing nearly all of the nutrients. It is this combination of nutrient feed and bacteria which does most of the environmental harm to rivers, in severe cases starving them of oxygen and wiping out aquatic life. The report points out that three of the major water companies are already committed to introducing this three-stage treatment to all their works, eventually, and says all the rest must follow.

The MPs also have grave concerns about the practice of spreading the sludge from sewage works on farmland as a fertiliser, which could potentially contaminate food with viruses and bacteria as well as building up concentrations of toxic heavy metals. This practice is set to increase because of a ban on dumping sewage sludge at sea which comes into force this year.

The Committee says that by 2002 all sewage sludge placed on farmland must undergo pasteurisation treatment which kills most of the bacteria in it. And the practice of using it as fertiliser should no longer be regulated with a voluntary code of practice. "These are tough recommendations but we believe they are realistic," says the report.