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EA to toughen approach as sector's pollution performance declines

Water company efforts to protect the environment were described as "simply unacceptable" in an Environment Agency (EA) report published today (10 July), with only one of the major water and sewage companies in England performing at the level expected.

Emma Howard Boyd said the Environment Agency will toughen its regulatory approach in light of the resultsEmma Howard Boyd said the Environment Agency will toughen its regulatory approach in light of the results

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 the rivers and wildlife.

Writing in the report’s foreword, Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: "The situation is never black and white. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that performance in 2018 was simply unacceptable."

She added that the EA is "not seeing dramatic improvements in 2019" and warned: "As a result, we will toughen our regulatory approach.

"We will increase our inspections and auditing of companies’ performance. We will launch a new programme called 'Improving Water Company Performance'. This will focus on the poor performing companies and on tackling the behaviour which is doing most damage to the environment. This includes failure to prevent serious pollution incidents, non-compliance with permits and the wrong use of sludge.

"We will continue to work with Ofwat, the economic regulator, and we will prioritise looking at financial penalties to drive better environmental performance. Fines are currently only a fraction of turnover. Ofwat has been clear that companies need to consider the issues that matter for their customers and wider stakeholders, and take these factors into account when deciding dividend payments to their shareholders."

The annual report rates each of the nine water and sewerage companies in England as either green, amber or red on a range of measures including serious pollution, pollution per kilometre of sewer pipes, supply resilience, self-reporting of pollution and complying with permits – and also compares individual company performance to highlight the best and worst.

Northumbrian Water was the only company achieving the highest four-star rating, showing that it is possible to bring in good environmental practices and limit the impact of operations on nature. The Environment Agency report said this improvement is to be applauded and that it had only been possible with focus from the top of the organisation and ongoing effort from operational teams.

The report highlighted the best and worst performance including:

  • Northumbrian Water improved to gain the highest rating of 4 stars
  • Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Wessex Water dropped from 4 stars to 3 stars, with Anglian Water and Thames Water remaining on 3 stars. Companies with 3 stars must improve their performance to reduce their 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’
  • Again this year, South West Water is poor performing and has consistently demonstrated unacceptable performance and a red rating for pollution incidents
  • Most water companies look set to fail to meet 2020 pollution targets
  • Southern Water and Thames Water failed to demonstrate they have robust enough plans to maintain secure water supplies

The EA's executive director of operations, 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.” 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “Water companies have a responsibility to distribute our most precious natural resource, and must act as stewards of our environment. But today’s damning report by the Environment Agency shows all but one are failing to protect rivers, lakes and groundwater from serious pollution and the effects of climate change.

“Northumbrian Water have demonstrated that real improvements can be made, and all water companies must now follow their lead, drop the excuse-mongering and prove that they take their environmental obligations seriously.”

Responding to the report, Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: "This year’s assessment of environmental performance is disappointing, given the major progress which water companies have made over many years in improving the environment.

"As the Environment Agency acknowledges, the situation is never black and white. Six out of nine companies are rated good or better in the assessment, and the most serious pollution incidents are down 18 per cent on the previous year, but there is much more to do across the board to achieve the high standards which people rightly expect water companies to meet.

"Our good record on improving the environment is there for all to see. By 2020 the industry will have invested around £25 billion into environmental work, putting in more advanced treatment methods to improve the quality of our waterways.

"This will mean around 10000 miles of UK rivers have been improved and protected since 1995. And the industry has made a major commitment for the future, with an additional £5 billion to be spent between 2020 and 2025 on environmental improvements, and a reduction in serious pollution incidents of 90 per cent by the end of 2025.

"Improving the environment remains a key priority for the industry and companies will work closely with regulators to ensure we deliver on our ambitious commitments."

Southern Water dropped one star but highlighted the progress the company has made.

Dr Alison Hoyle, Southern's director of risk and compliance, said: "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 of our high impact sites is making good progress.

"To our disappointment we suffered a small number of more serious pollution incidents during the year. We continue to invest in our sites to increase resilience and we are working closely with the Environment Agency to ensure we learn the correct lessons from these events.

"A major factor in our rating for water supply resilience was the challenge we face in Hampshire following the introduction of new restrictions on water abstraction from the rivers Test and Itchen. Over the next 10 years we plan to spend more than £800 million to make up the deficit created by the new licences.

"We also received a good score – the third highest – for Discharge Permit Compliance, which relates to the quality of treated wastewater leaving our sites. Our delivery of environmental improvement schemes was also strong."

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Policy & Regulation , Sewer Networks
Tags: environment agency , pollution , Northumbrian Water

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