Updated Jan 14, 2022

Environment Agency tells staff to "Ignore reports of low-impact pollution events"

Staff in England's Environment Agency are told to "shut down" and ignore reports of low impact pollution events due to lack of available funds for investigation, according to a leaked internal report. 

The ruling for category 3 and 4 incidents means events like farm pollution or hazardous dumps by business may not be investigated - a decision that has infuriated river groups and NGOs. Issued in November, the Environment Agency briefing to staff details that there is leadership support for "no response to unfunded low - and no-impact environmental incidents" - also known as category 3 and 4 incidents. The document also hints towards the Agency's frustration at both ministers and the money set aside for their work, stating that the its leadership team has "made it clear to Government that you get the environment you pay for".

Exceptions to the new rule will be pollution incidents that are caused by either a regulated site or water company. The briefing does not explain how it will determine the source or seriousness of an incident if it is neither attended or investigated. The briefing does state some benefits to ignoring the huge number of pollution reports that arrive every year, including "reduced overall effort spent on the incidents that present the lowest risk to the environment", increased effort on "charge-funded regulation", more space to prioritise higher-risk incidents, "increased consistency of response and service for customers", and reduced disruption to officers in and out of hours.

In a recent Environment Agency presentation on the incident triage project (as it is known internally), the Agency has stated that it currently responds to more than 70,000 incidents every year, and that the number continues to increase. Contrary to this, data from the Agency's National Incident Recording System shows that whilst 116,000 potential incidents were reported in 2021, only 8,000 were actually attended; a number that has fallen from the 12,000 seen in 2016, out of a potential 74,000 incidents. The presentation deck added, "We cannot keep trying to do what we are not funded to do; we do not have the money or resources. We are in an unsustainable position. Our incident responders feel under growing pressure, and this is affecting staff resilience and wellbeing."

If staff hear of a category 3 or 4 incident that does not relate to a water company or a regulated site, they are told: "Do not substantiate report, call site or add any details. Shut down report." In anticipation of complaints, template reply letters have been created for Agency staff. One unnamed officer has said, "A lot of category 2 incidents start off as 3s until they are attended" and that an example of a category 3 could be a "2km spill of oil or sewage in a river". Another anonymous officer added that it would be "impossible" to determine what level of incident had taken place without visiting it. The response to pollution by the Environment Agency has been dwindling for some time, and "unless there were dead fish floating everywhere", and incident would likely not be attended.

The Agency's customer service commitment said the regulator's budget for responding to environmental incidents last year was cut - as well as slashing responses, it will no longer provide feedback on any action taken to tackle pollution events. This follows many years of grant-in-aid cuts, however the Government recently gave the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and it's agencies an additional £4.3 billion in the latest spending review (October 2021). The next overview for the Environment Agency's settlement is due this year. 

The Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust, Mark Lloyd, has called the decision an "appalling scandal", adding that, "Category 1 and 2 pollution incidents obviously have a very serious impact on the environment, but they are the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of incidents are in lower categories, and they are what cause the death of rivers by a thousand cuts." He believes the Agency needed the "resources and political backing to take robust action in all cases of pollution if our rivers are not to continue suffering endemic pollution and an ongoing decline in quality. It is absolutely essential that there should be a credible threat of enforcement for all pollution incidents if we are to restore our rivers to good health for the next generation."

Penny Gane, Fish Legal's Head of Practice, has said that ignoring pollution incidents risks people giving up on reporting them in the first place. She continues, "Many of our members gave up reporting pollution incidents some time ago because they didn’t feel that the Agency was interested," and added that any further drop in reports "will paint a much rosier picture than the reality of our deteriorating rivers and it will be much harder for the Agency to build a case for more funding". Gane is also concerned about how the reduction in responses will be managed: "Without attending an incident, how can they possibly know whether it is being caused by a regulated site or a water company? In practice, they’re talking about agricultural pollution, which the Environment Agency has identified as the main threat to water quality and reason for water-body failures in England."

Feargal Sharkey, the rivers campaigner, sees the move as a more cynical one, stating, "The obscenity is that the Environment Agency has reduced its own staff to nothing more than political pawns in a cheap game of Whitehall politics. It’s unwarranted, it’s unjust, it’s incompetent."

An Environment Agency spokesperson has commented saying, "We focus our incident response effort on those pollution incidents which pose the greatest risk to the environment. Our incident triage project is looking at how we can best use our resources and maximise benefits for the environment. While we continue to attend the most serious incidents, we concentrate our efforts on our regulatory activities which prevent incidents from happening in the first place. Intelligence from incident reporting helps us to plan and prioritise our work to protect the environment."

A DEFRA spokesperson said, "The Government recognises the importance of protecting the nation’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly. DEFRA and its agencies received an additional £4.3bn in the latest spending review in October 2021 so we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. The Environment Agency plays a hugely significant role in this area and will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental harm to account."