Water companies accused of illegally dumping raw sewage at UK swimming spots

Data shows sewage releases correspond with gastroenteritis cases, ear, nose and throat infections, and respiratory, skin and urinary tract infections

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Thursday 24 November 2022 09:11 GMT
A jetty beneath which raw sewage was reportedly discharged on 17 August in Seaford, East Sussex
A jetty beneath which raw sewage was reportedly discharged on 17 August in Seaford, East Sussex (Getty)

New data indicates that water companies in the UK are making “dry spills”: illegally discharging sewage into rivers and seas during dry weather.

Pumping raw sewage into the environment is permitted only when firms are dealing with “unusually heavy rainfall”, but analysis by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) suggests the law has been ignored by water companies, with firms pumping raw sewage into rivers and seas during dry weather.

In total, 146 dry spills were detected over the past year, from October 2021 to September 2022.

To reach their figures, the organisation carried out analysis of sewage discharge alerts by water companies and meteorological data, which it said indicated that sewage discharges occurred in “multiple instances” when there was no rain recorded.

During the year this happened “at least 146 times at a conservative estimate”, it said.

Of these 146 spills, 95 of them (65 per cent), were at locations where water quality is usually classified as “excellent”.

Southern Water was responsible for four times as many dry spills as the next worst offender, South West Water.

Between October 2021 and September 2022, SAS issued a total of 9,216 sewage pollution alerts via its Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS), which covers more than 450 beach and river spots across the UK and is designed to help the public make informed decisions about where and when they swim, surf or paddle.

A quarter (2,053) of these sewage alerts were during the 2022 bathing season.

The figures come as SAS releases its annual water quality report.

Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy at SAS, said: “Over the last year, the UK public has made clear their disgust at what’s happening to our rivers and seas, and yet water companies continue to pollute at will. It’s especially alarming to uncover evidence of potentially illegal activity by water companies in the form of dry spills, which are not permitted under current regulations. Shareholders and CEOs are unashamedly profiteering off pollution.”

She said the government’s failure to make sewage dumping illegal, and instead implement rules that would compel water companies to invest £56bn over 25 years in a long-term programme to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050, was letting polluting firms off the hook.

She said: “The government is complicit in the sewage scandal, failing to enforce and strengthen regulations to protect the health of the UK’s waterways and the health of its citizens. Politicians are simply kicking the can down the road, legitimising sewage pollution for the next 27 years through the sewage action plan published this summer.

“It’s high time the government stepped up and took real action to curb the destructive and selfish behaviour of the water companies responsible for this literal s****storm.”

Elsewhere in SAS’s annual report, the team analysed data from 720 sickness reports submitted via the SSRS.

The data revealed that more than a third (39 per cent) of sickness cases correlated to sewage discharge alerts, and 63 per cent of cases that were reported to doctors were attributed to poor water quality.

The organisation said its findings “make a mockery of the categorisation system for designated bathing waters in the UK”.

More than half (55 per cent) of the sickness reports submitted related to instances of swimming at locations classified as “excellent” under the current testing regime.

The SAS claimed its sickness data “is proof of the detrimental effect that the sewage scandal is having on our health”.

The most common illness reported by people who got sick after swimming in rivers or the sea was gastroenteritis, with two in three people reporting symptoms associated with the condition.

Ear, nose and throat infections were common too, with respiratory, skin and urinary tract infections also reported.

Human sewage contains bacteria and viruses that have previously grown inside another person, making them particularly threatening to humans.

Some of the pathogens commonly found in raw sewage include campylobacter, salmonella, E. coli, listeria, norovirus and rotavirus, according to waste services and cleaning company The Safe Group.

Ms Slack added: “Surfers Against Sewage has been campaigning on water quality for the last three decades, making it abundantly clear to water companies that their actions are detrimental to both environmental and public health.

“Yet water companies are still choosing to pour sewage into the ocean and rivers across the country, making us quite literally sick of sewage.”

A Southern Water spokesperson told The Independent: “SAS has been asked to share its full report prior to publication a number of times, but to no avail, so it is very challenging to respond to specific data points in the report without the full information.

“Storm releases, which go a long way to reducing the impact of the type of flooding we have seen recently, and which are permitted by the Environment Agency, reduced by nearly 50 per cent this year compared to last, in part due to a dry summer. We’re investing £2bn to improve environmental performance and further reduce their use, by increasing storage capacity and working with partners to reduce the rain run-off entering the system.

“Our data on storm overflows, including unconsented spills, is submitted to the Environment Agency. Our annual bathing water update details how we are working to create healthier rivers and seas. This improvement is being achieved through record additional investment to reduce pollution and prevent flooding, industry-leading monitoring and transparency on spill reporting, and the exploration of innovative, nature-based and engineering solutions.”

A Defra spokesperson defended the government’s record on tackling the issue.

They told The Independent: “We are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers, lakes and seas.

“Our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan has brought in strict targets on sewage pollution and will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history to tackle storm sewage discharges – a £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.

“We have been clear that water companies cannot profit from environmental damage. Through increased monitoring and transparency, driven by government, the regulators have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage treatment works ever. Regulators will use all options for robust enforcement action and will continue to prioritise action to protect bathing waters and high priority nature sites.”

The Independent has also contacted South West Water for comment.

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