Environment Agency tells water companies to clean up their act
Published: 11 Jul 2019

The Environment Agency (EA) published a Report this week calling water company efforts to protect the environment "simply unacceptable", with only one of the major water and sewage companies in England performing at the level expected.

Overall water company performance has deteriorated, which reverses the trend of gradual improvement in the sector since the rating system began in 2011. Serious pollution incidents increased in 2018, causing damage to rivers and wildlife.

EA's Chair Emma Howard Boyd, who previously warned water companies that they would face a tougher regulatory approach with increasing inspections, is pledging that the EA will continue to work with water regulator Ofwat to look at financial penalties. This with the aim to drive better environmental performance, given fines are currently only a fraction of turnover.

In the Report, Boyd comments that "companies should be reflecting on their environmental performance and long-term resilience, if this is poor they should be asking themselves whether dividends are justifiable".

"Serious pollution incidents which damage the local environment, threaten wildlife and in the worst cases put the public at risk have increased".

The Report rates each of the 9 water and sewerage companies in England as either green, amber, or red on a range of measures, including:

  • serious pollution;
  • pollution per km of sewer pipes;
  • supply resilience;
  • self-reporting of pollution;
  • complying with permits.

The Report also compared individual company performances to highlight the best and worst. The results included:

  • Northumbrian Water improved to gain the highest rating of 4 stars;
  • Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Wessex Water dropped from 4 to 3 stars, with Anglian Water and Thames Water remaining on 3 stars. Companies with 3 stars must improve their performance to reduce the impact on the environment;
  • Southern Water, South West Water and Yorkshire Water were only given 2 stars and described as demonstrating an "unacceptable level of performance";
  • South West Water has again this year performed poorly and has consistently demonstrated unacceptable performance and red rating for pollution incidents;
  • Southern Water and Thames Water failed to demonstrate they have robust enough plans to maintain secure water supplies.

Northumbrian Water is the only company that achieved the highest 4-star rating, showed that it is possible to bring in good environmental practices and limit the impact of operations on nature. In the Report the EA said this improvement is to be applauded, which had only been possible with focus from the top of the organisation and ongoing effort from operational teams.

Southern Water has been heavily criticised for its performance in the past and is at the centre of a criminal investigation by the EA over failures at a sewage treatment plant that polluted rivers and beaches in southern England. The company was fined £126 million by Ofwat over the failures, which the watchdog described as "shocking". The Report also criticised South West Water for poor performance, giving it a red rating for pollution incidents.

The Report stated: "We expect companies to prevent serious pollution incidents... [which] lead to the release of harmful substances into air, land or water, and some can cause significant harm to the environment".

Category one incidents have a serious extensive or persistent impact on the environment, people or property and may, for example, result in a large number of fish deaths. Category two incidents have a lesser but significant impact. In 2018, the number of serious pollution incidents, categories one and two, increased to 56 from 52, with 48 of them involving the companies' sewage networks and sewage treatment works.

Executive Director of Operations for the EA, Dr Toby Willison said "water companies need to clean up their act. People expect water companies to improve the environment, not pollute rivers and ensure secure supplies of water. With only one exception, none of the companies are performing at the level we wish to see, the country expects and the environment needs. We will continue to challenge CEOs to improve company performance and we will take strong and appropriate enforcement action".

"Companies performing well have a positive ripple effect on the natural environment and communities in their regions. We want all water companies to meet the expectation of their customers, the needs of environment and learn from the best practice that the leading company is demonstrating".

Yorkshire Water commented that the increase in its serious pollution incidents was "absolutely not reflective of the company's ambition to protect the environment" and fell "far short of the standards required to meet our aim to be recognised as an industry leader".

Southern Water added: "There has been a complete step change in our pollutions team over the past two years and this is reflected in the far higher level of self-reporting as new systems and processes kick in.

"We know we have more to do. More awareness training for staff means we are now finding and fixing issues sooner and an improvement programme at all our high-impact sites is making good progress".

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