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Thames Water fined £2M over raw sewage pollution

Thames Water has been fined £2 million and ordered to pay full costs of £79,991.57 after raw sewage polluted an Oxfordshire stream, killing 146 fish. The sewage also flooded a nearby garden.

Judge Peter Ross, at Oxford Crown Court, ruled the incident in 2015 as a high-end, category three harm offence. 

Numerous failures in the management of a sewage pumping station operated by the company led to sewage created by two villages emptying into Idbury Brook, which leads to the River Evenlode, a tributary of the River Thames.

Judge Ross found Thames Water to have been “reckless” in polluting Idbury Brook at Milton-under-Wychwood, near Chipping Norton, for a maximum of 24 hours on 8 and 9 August 2015.

Environment Agency officers were quickly on site, discovering the entire local population of almost 150 bullhead fish had been killed by the toxic waste along a 50-metre stretch of water.

A member of the public reported dead fish in Idbury Brook to the Environment Agency. A backlog of raw sewage was forced into the water from a sewer pipe that could not hold it. Sewage also escaped from a manhole and onto a residential front garden.

The court heard Thames Water disregarded more than 800 high-priority alarms needing attention within four hours, in the six weeks before the incident. Another 300 alarms were not properly investigated, all of which would have pointed out failures with the pumping station. One alarm was deliberately deactivated during a night shift.

Investigations by the Environment Agency revealed Thames Water was aware the pumping station failed five times in the 12 months up to and including the incident in August 2015.

Robert Davis, who led the investigation for the Environment Agency, said: “This incident was foreseeable and avoidable. Thames Water didn’t recognise the increased risk to the environment, ignoring or failing to respond adequately to more than 1,000 alarms.

“We hope this prosecution sends a loud and clear message that the Environment Agency will not accept poor operation, management and maintenance of sewage pumping stations. Where we have evidence of offending and serious pollution incidents like here, we will take appropriate action to bring polluters to justice.

“Judge Ross said Thames Water was ‘reckless’ by taking an unacceptable level of risk with the environment. It allowed the sewage pumping station to operate with no automatically available standby pump for around 10 months in the year prior to the pollution.”

Environment Agency officers discovered other information and data highlighting repeated problems with the pumping station in the year before the pollution, which Thames Water failed to report to the Environment Agency.

Thames Water pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to two charges of breaching environmental law.

Richard Aylard, Thames Water's external affairs and sustainability director, said: “We take our role in protecting the environment extremely seriously and are really sorry for what happened here in 2015.

“We have made a series of improvements since this regrettable incident, including bringing in more people, more maintenance, more training and better systems. In the three-and-a-half years since, we have not had a serious incident at any of our 4,700 pumping stations.

“We would like to reassure our customers that we continue to innovate and drive further improved performance right across the business, to help us achieve our ambition of zero pollutions.”

Author: Robin Hackett, editor, WWT
Topic: Policy & Regulation , Sewer Networks
Tags: environment agency , Thames Water , River pollution , pollution , fines , sewage

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