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Water company efforts to protect environment unacceptable – Environment Agency

Serious pollution incidents causing damage to rivers and wildlife in England increased last year, according to the agency’s annual report.

Polluted water (Environment Agency)
Polluted water (Environment Agency)

Water company efforts to protect the environment are “simply unacceptable”, the Environment Agency has said.

Serious pollution incidents in England increased to 56 last year from 52 in 2017 and overall water company performance has deteriorated, reversing the trend of gradual improvement in the sector since 2011, according to the agency’s annual report.

Most water companies look set to fail to meet 2020 pollution targets, it warns.

With only one exception, none of the companies are performing at the level we wish to see, the country expects and the environment needs Environment Agency

Just one of the nine major water and sewage companies in England – Northumbrian Water – is performing at the level expected, achieving the highest four star rating.

Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Wessex Water dropped from four stars to three stars, meaning they must improve their performance to reduce their impact on the environment.

Anglian Water and Thames Water remained on three stars and Southern Water, South West Water and Yorkshire Water achieved just two stars for their “unacceptable level of performance”.

The agency slapped South West Water with a red rating for pollution incidents for “consistently demonstrating unacceptable performance”, while Southern Water and Thames Water failed to demonstrate they had robust plans to maintain secure water supplies.

The report follows the agency’s announcement that Southern Water is facing prosecution after it was hit with a record £126 million penalty package over “shocking” failures in its sewage treatment sites.

The agency’s chairwoman, Emma Howard Boyd – who has previously warned water companies they would face a tougher regulatory approach with increasing inspections, pledged to look at financial penalties “given fines are currently only a fraction of turnover”.

Writing in the report’s foreword, she said: “Companies should be reflecting on their environmental performance and long-term resilience, if this is poor they should be asking themselves whether dividends are justifiable.”

The agency’s executive director of operations, Dr Toby Willison, said: “Water companies need to clean up their act. People expect water companies to improve the environment, not pollute rivers, and ensure secure supplies of water.

“With only one exception, none of the companies are performing at the level we wish to see, the country expects and the environment needs. We will continue to challenge CEOs to improve company performance and we will take strong and appropriate enforcement action.

“Companies performing well have a positive ripple effect on the natural environment and communities in their regions. We want all water companies to meet the expectation of their customers, the needs of environment and learn from the best practice that the leading company is demonstrating.”

Water UK chief executive Michael Roberts said: “This year’s assessment of environmental performance is disappointing, given the major progress which water companies have made over many years in improving the environment.

“As the Environment Agency acknowledges, the situation is never black and white.  Six out of nine companies are rated good or better in the assessment, and the most serious pollution incidents are down 18% on the previous year, but there is much more to do across the board to achieve the high standards which people rightly expect water companies to meet.”

Consumer Council for Water chairman Rob Light said: “People have a growing concern for the environment and will feel badly let down that the majority of water and sewerage companies in England have failed to be good stewards of our waterways and the life that depends on them.

“Customers will back any move that hits companies much harder in the pocket when they flout their responsibilities to the environment – it’s clear the existing deterrents are not strong enough.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “Water companies have a responsibility to distribute our most precious natural resource, and must act as stewards of our environment.

“But today’s damning report by the Environment Agency shows all but one are failing to protect rivers, lakes and groundwater from serious pollution and the effects of climate change.

“Northumbrian Water have demonstrated that real improvements can be made, and all water companies must now follow their lead, drop the excuse-mongering and prove that they take their environmental obligations seriously.”

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