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Pollution the 'glaring exception' to sector's success story - Bevan

Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan has warned water companies to improve their pollution performance, saying: "If companies cannot operate without damaging the environment, they will rightly lose their social licence to operate."

Bevan, in a speech at the Water Industry Forum in Birmingham, said the industry faces "three big challenges" – an operational challenge, a climate challenge and a political challenge – and that although companies' overall performance is impressive, the sector will need to up its game if it is to survive in its present form.

When the Environment Agency published its figures for 2017 last July, it showed that there had been 1,827 pollution incidents attributable to the English water and sewerage companies, down from 1,902 in 2016, while serious pollution incidents (category 1 and 2) fell from 57 to 52.

Bevan, though, revealed that it had risen back to 56 in 2018 and called pollution the "one glaring exception" to his overall praise for companies' operational record.

"The water sector has got a lot better over the last few decades in reducing the number and severity of pollution incidents, but one big pollution incident is one too many, and the industry is not yet showing the reduction in numbers of serious pollution incidents that we want to see," he said.

"A few years ago, the Environment Agency set a target that the numbers of serious pollution incidents caused by the water companies should trend down to zero by 2020, but over the last five years performance has plateaued in the 50 to 60 range. In 2017, the water companies caused 52 serious pollution incidents. Last year it was even worse: 56.

"When a water company causes a serious pollution incident – typically by allowing raw sewage to escape into a watercourse – the result is always bad for the environment: it can and does kill thousands of fish, animals and plants, damage ecosystems and ruin water quality for a long time.

"A serious pollution incident is also bad for the company concerned, because we will normally prosecute. We usually win those prosecutions, and the courts are now issuing record fines which will hit the companies’ bottom line.

"There’s more. Serious pollution incidents are bad for the industry as a whole because they tarnish the reputation of the industry as a whole. And when that happens people ask legitimate questions about whether the current economic model for water drives the right behaviour by the companies, or whether there should be another model.

"The bottom line is this. There is only one acceptable level for pollution incidents: zero. The water companies, I suggest, have just as much interest as the Environment Agency and the public in getting to that target sooner rather than later."

Bevan, who repeated his recent warning about the 'jaws of death', said he felt the political scrutiny on the industry is in many ways "deeply unfair" but stressed that greater efforts are needed on pollution, leakage, drought and long-term climate resilience if the sector is to survive in its current form.

He said: "I don’t think the fundamental issue is whether water companies remain privatised or are taken back into public ownership: the fundamental issue is what will deliver best for the public and the environment. That is where the debate should start and finish.

"The Environment Agency will contribute to that debate – praise the water industry when we think praise is due and challenge it to up your game when we think it should."

Author: Robin Hackett, Deputy Editor, WWT and WET News
Topic: Policy & Regulation
Tags: environment agency , government , pollution , nationalisation , renationalisation

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