Water companies falling short on environmental responsibilities

UK water companies are failing to cut pollution from spills of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters according to the latest annual report by the Environment Agency.

The review of the environmental performance of England’s nine water and sewerage firms found that while there were improvements in 2020, no single company achieved all the expectations for the period 2015 to 2020. These included the reduction of total pollution incidents by at least one-third compared with 2012 and for incident self-reporting to be at least 75%.

The EA said that the sector coped well with COVID-19 pressures in 2020 and recently committed over £850m to help contribute to a green recovery from the pandemic, but added that a number of companies are still failing to live up to their responsibilities to regulators, their customers and the environment.

Since 2011, the agency has used the Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA), which rates each company in England from 1-4 stars, for performance on environmental commitments such as pollution incidents and treatment work compliance. Where these commitments are not achieved, companies will face underperformance penalties, with Ofwat having new powers to levy fines from 2020.

Southern Water and South West Water were rated as 2 star, meaning that improvement is required. Anglian Water and Thames Water were rated as 3 star (good), while five companies (Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water) achieved 4 stars, although certain improvements are still required. Overall though, it means that 2015-2020 expectations, including full compliance for waste water discharge permits and a 50% reduction in serious pollution incidents compared with 2012, have not been met.

The results come the week after Southern Water was sentenced to pay a record-breaking £90m fine after pleading guilty in court to 6971 unpermitted pollution discharges. The successful Environment Agency investigation was the biggest the regulator has ever conducted. Earlier this year Thames Water was also fined £4m and £2.3m for separate pollution incidents.

David Black, interim chief executive at Ofwat, said: “It’s disappointing to see repeat poor performance from some companies who are failing to take their responsibilities seriously enough. Addressing environmental challenges remains a top priority for water companies and the performance of some companies falls well short of what customers expect. We are pleased to see the performance of the leading companies in the sector, which demonstrates what can be achieved with focus and attention.”

“A step-change in culture and commitment is required if the sector is to fundamentally change the way it delivers for customers and the environment. Our work with government, the Environment Agency and other stakeholders will continue to ensure we hold companies to account so that the environment is left in a better condition for generations to come.”

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