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Southern Water convicted of pumping raw sewage into waterways including Beaulieu River

SOUTHERN Water was in court this week after admitting illegally discharging raw sewage into waterways including Beaulieu River thousands of times over six years.

The company is facing 51 charges brought by the Environment Agency (EA) at Canterbury Crown Court, and has been accused of deliberately pumping effluent into the environment from 16 wastewater treatment works for “financial gain”.

Between January 2010 and December 2015, sewage was discharged into Beaulieu River 176 times, for a duration of 3,950 hours, according to the prosecution.

Beaulieu River
Beaulieu River

On a “crude calculation” SW was responsible for around three spills every day, on average, over a total duration of 28 hours, during a six-year period, the EA said.

The company is expected to be sentenced today (Friday) and could face a fine of millions of pounds.

Court documents said there was “clear evidence that deliberate practices were put in place to prevent sites from operating lawfully”, and the EA highlighted a “serious underfunding and investment in the wastewater operations side of its business”.

SW has been convicted every year from 1999 to 2016, including for unpermitted discharges to sea.

Despite making a profit of £328m in 2019/20 and its CEO taking a base salary of £435,000, the prosecution said there was a “general unwillingness by the company to fund the necessary staff, maintenance and upgrades that would make the company compliant”.

The prosecution’s case summary stated that the damage to water quality by the company was “major and adverse”, and the discharges posed a threat to human and animal health.

Andrew Hodge, SW process operator at Beaulieu, said in an investigation interview that staff were told on a “regular basis how poor Southern Water is”.

He said: “Everybody’s out to try and save money these days because they haven’t got a big enough budget to cope with all the stuff that needs doing.

“So it’s the budget that decided things – all we can do is report things, and if they haven’t got the budget to put new equipment in when it’s needed, then it doesn’t get done.”

In a statement, Southern Water said its new management team, appointed in 2017, “investigated and recognised these events” and subsequently pleaded guilty to all charges.

Local conservationist Russell Wynn, of Wild New Forest, has spent years raising awareness of the issue and fighting for change.

He told the A&T that despite the convictions “nothing would change” until the government started properly investing in bodies responsible for regulating water companies.

Conservationist Russell Wynn
Conservationist Russell Wynn

“The Environment Agency has been cut to the bone in terms of funding, which has left it unable to properly monitor these untrustworthy operators that have got to meet shareholder demand,” he said.

“I have a three-year-old and I don’t let him near Beaulieu River after heavy rain – Southern Water is still pumping effluent into it and I’ve been given no indication of a timescale of when that is going to stop.”

In court papers, the EA said offending arose from “failing equipment, poor maintenance of alarms, and an inability properly to respond to issues as they arise”.

Despite “clear warning” by the courts, there was “no evidence” to suggest a change in attitude by SW, the hearing was told, and the company had continued to ignore”well-placed concerns” raised by staff.

“The environmental impact cannot fully be measured but is immense,” said the report. “The chain of harm is simple and compounded; sewage contains all sorts of waste including human pathogens and plastics.

“Its discharge to coastal waters, as well as causing environmental harm, contaminates shellfish that are harvested and enter the human food chain where they may cause serious harm to humans.”

All of the affected sites were used for amenities, the court heard, and the offending had a knock-on effect on tourism and local economies.

The prosecution pointed to a “major loss of confidence” in SW by the public who were unable to change suppliers because “the defendant has a regional monopoly”.

Currently, water companies are given permits by the EA that allow them to release raw sewage into rivers after extreme weather to stop water backing up and flooding homes.

However, their use has increased in recent years as climate change has led to greater rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth.

The court heard SW had used storm tanks as an “everyday convenience” rather than a “permit-controlled, emergency measure”.

New laws have recently been introduced by the government in an effort to tackle effluent in UK waterways after the issue was raised by Philip Dunne, chair of the environmental audit committee, in a private member’s bill introduced last year.

They include a duty on water companies to publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis.

The government is also legally required to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce such sewage discharges.

Both New Forest MPs have lent their support to the issue, which has been steadily gaining momentum nationally.

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