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UK facing European court after government fails to stop sewage spills

London MEP says it is ‘clear the government cannot be left to its own devices when it comes to keeping our water sources safe’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Sunday 03 February 2019 14:10 GMT
The storm drain system in the village of Whitburn has been releasing sewage when water levels are high following heavy rainfall
The storm drain system in the village of Whitburn has been releasing sewage when water levels are high following heavy rainfall (Photos Bob Latimer)

The government is facing a potential court date in Europe after six years of failing to stop sewage leaking at sites in Sunderland and London.

Locals complain of raw sewage seeping from manholes and washing up on their beaches after hundreds of thousands of tonnes were spilled last year.

The EU is now threatening the UK with fines for its insufficient response, but with Brexit looming there is uncertainty about whether it can continue fighting for British water quality.

This latest development follows a European Court of Justice ruling in 2012 that the UK had broken water quality rules and had five years to resolve the problem.

Major upgrades to water infrastructure have since been undertaken at the northern village of Whitburn and on the River Thames to cope with excess water during storms and prevent contamination.

These include the construction of a massive new “super sewer” in London, which the European Commission welcomed as “significant progress”.

However, with waste still seeping in at levels above legal limits, European authorities have deemed them inadequate.

The EU has now given the UK two months to explain itself or face another court appearance and financial sanctions. The deadline will land barely a week before the date of Brexit.

While in the initial ruling European judges did not specify the penalty it would impose, a similar case in 2010 saw Belgium threatened with a fine of €15m (£13m).

Whitburn residents have been recording sewage discharges including debris such as toilet paper appearing on the beach over the past few years (Bob Latimer)

The effort to tackle pollution in the northeast has been led for years by Bob Latimer, a local engineer and former fisherman whose house overlooks the storm water system pumping untreated waste into the sea.

“I kept seeing sewage on the beach and reporting it and reporting it, and nobody did anything about it,” he said.

Before the system was upgraded, Mr Latimer’s family would find tampons and toilet paper on the beach, but the system now in place means any spillage is ground into a slurry.

An assessment by the commission found nearly 300,000 tonnes of untreated sewage had been spilled at the Whitburn site in the first eight months of 2018, right after the problem had supposedly been fixed.

According to North East Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling, the company responsible – Northumbrian Water – took the full five years to act and had still not made sufficient progress.

In response to the EU’s decision, the company’s wastewater director Richard Warneford noted beaches in the area had been granted “excellent” status for the past three years, based on Environment Agency sampling.

But Ms Kirton-Darling said British authorities had not taken the situation seriously, and that the EU had ended up being the last remaining advocates for Mr Latimer and his fellow campaigners.

“My concern is: what happens post-Brexit when we are not there?” she said.

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London Labour MEP Seb Dance said it was “clear the government cannot be left to its own devices when it comes to keeping our water sources safe”.

“Should the UK deregulate, diverge from and weaken EU environmental standards after Brexit, there will be yet more pollution flowing,” he added.

EU environmental law expert Dr Viviane Gravey noted that if there is a transition period, the ongoing legal proceedings should continue uninterrupted. However, without a deal there is likely to be a “governance gap” while equivalent bodies are set up to hold the government to account.

Dr Peter Spillett from Thames Water said that in London the solution was already in place to prevent storm overflows, but would take another three to four years to be complete. He added that he thought Brexit was unlikely to affect this.

“One can be worried about less environmental protection and governance after Brexit, although in this instance I don’t think it makes any difference,” he said.

Responding to the EU’s comments, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK compliance levels with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive are at or above the EU average and comparable with the better-performing member states.

“The government is already taking significant action to achieve compliance in these locations – with much of these, such as in Whitburn, already complete.

“The government is considering the Letter of Formal Notice in relation to compliance with EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive in London and Whitburn and will respond in due course.”

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