The company admitted 6,971 illegal spills from 17 sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex between 2010 and 2015, amounting to 51 criminal counts. Human waste was pumped into the sea from 16 waste water treatment works and one sewer overflow.
The Environment Agency said it is the biggest pollution case it has seen in 25 years.
Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson said Southern Water’s board of directors at the time had committed the offences “deliberately”, despite lawyers for the water company claiming they were the result of negligence.
The company has previously received 168 convictions and cautions, including “numerous offences of discharging untreated sewage”, leading the judge to say that the “sheer scale” of offending meant it was “inherently unlikely this was due to a small number of rogue employees”.
“It is far more likely to be due to deliberate disregard for the law from the top down,” Mr Justice Johnson said. “I am sure that the board of directors knew that the systems that were in place were wholly inadequate.”
He said the fine should act as a deterrent to other companies.
Mr Justice Johnson said the offences “showed a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosystems along the north Kent and Solent coastlines, to human health and to the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters”.
A total volume of between 16 to 21 billion litres – enough to fill 7,400 Olympic swimming pools – of human waster was estimated to have been dumped into the sea between January 2010 and December 2015.
The Environment Agency became aware of the pollution after shellfish in the River Swale were found to be contaminated with faecal bacteria.
Hugo Tagholm, head of Surfers Against Sewage condemned Southern Water’s actions as “criminal capitalism”. He said: “It’s absolutely scandalous that Southern Water dumped raw sewage in the sea for so long, hiding their tracks as they went so they could increase their profits. This shocking, criminal capitalism is one of the worst cases of companies wilfully putting profits before the health of people or planet.”
He criticised the company for polluting “fragile, precious and finite blue habitats ... all whilst their CEOs walk away with huge pay packets and dividends”.
Following sentencing, Ian McAulay, the chief executive of Southern Water, said: “I am deeply sorry for the historic incidents which have led to today’s sentencing and fine. I know that the people who rely on us to be custodians of the precious environment in southern England must be able to trust us. What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.”
Mr McAuley said the company “will reflect closely on the sentence and the judge’s remarks” but said Southern Water has changed the way it operates since he joined in 2017.
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