Southern Water fined record £90m for polluting waterways including Beaulieu River
SOUTHERN Water has been fined a record £90m for polluting waterways – including Beaulieu River – in what the judge termed a "shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment".
The case at Canterbury Crown Court, which followed the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency's 25-year history, heard the company had discharged effluent across Hampshire, Kent and Sussex from 16 wastewater treatment works nearly 7,000 times between January 2010 and December 2015.
Pleading guilty to 51 charges, SW was said to have caused "major harm" to the environment and adversely impacted local economies.
His Honour Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson said the offences had been "committed deliberately" by Southern Water's board of directors at the time.
“Each of the 51 offences seen in isolation shows a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosystems along the North Kent and Solent coastlines, for human health, and for the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters," he said.
“Each offence does not stand in isolation. It is necessary to sentence the company for the totality of the offences to which it has pleaded guilty. But even that does not reflect the defendant’s criminality. That is because the offences are aggravated by its previous persistent pollution of the environment over very many years.”
At Beaulieu, sewage was pumped into the river 176 times, for a duration of 3,950 hours.
SW has been convicted every year from 1999 to 2016, including for unpermitted discharges to sea, with the latest case highlighting a "serious underfunding and investment in the wastewater operations side of its business".
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 EA said the utilities firm had "deliberately presented a misleading picture of compliance", thereby "hindering proper regulation of the company".
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. At Beaulieu, New Forest Activities regularly leads kayaking and canoeing trips on the river.
The EA said the fine – the largest paid by a water company for environmental pollution to date – will be paid out of company operating profits to protect customers from "having to pick up the tab".
Chair of the EA, Emma Howard Boyd, said: “With nature in crisis, no one should profit from undermining environmental laws.
“Like all water companies, Southern Water has a responsibility to operate in accordance with permit conditions and protect against serious pollution.
"In its deliberate, widespread and repeated offending, it has failed the environment, customers and the system of environmental laws the public puts its trust in."
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: "The findings in this case were shocking and wholly unacceptable, and this fine is absolutely appropriate and welcomed.
“I have spoken directly to the industry about taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, protecting rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them. Some companies are making welcome strides, but we still need to see significant improvements from others.”
Southern Water's CEO, Ian McAulay, said he was "deeply sorry" for what had happened and will "reflect closely on the sentence and the judge's remarks".
"He has rightly put the environment front and centre, which is what matters to all of us," he said. "These events happened between 2010 and 2015. I joined Southern Water in 2017 and am passionately committed to the environment.
"We have changed the way we operate. My expectation is that Southern Water is fully transparent and operates in the right way. We continue to transform across the areas of risk and compliance, measurement and self-reporting. We have made much progress and are continuing to invest to protect the environment and deliver our services safely and at a fair price for our customers.
"Today’s fine will not impact customers’ bills and investment in our transformation will not be reduced. Our shareholders are bearing the cost of the fine."