What a load of ….

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked

Pop quiz, hot-shots. What lasted for 1 million hours in 2022? And has carried on during 2023?

I warn you, the answer’s not for the faint hearted, or sensitive of stomach. If you’re reading this over your morning porridge or a cup of espresso coffee then I apologise.

In 2022,  raw sewage from water companies all across England and Wales was pumped into our rivers and seas for 1 million hours, on average 825 times per day.  One million hours is 41,000 days. Or, all day, every day for 112 years. That’s according to figures from the Environment Agency, although the rather wonderfully named Top of the Poops website, funded in part by the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, fears it’s a chronic understatement.

Why? Depends who you ask. The water and utility companies – the privatised water and utility companies (yes, that’s a clue) – will say that it is because of exceptional circumstances. Of unprecedented weather events that mean the normal channels are over-run, the storm drains and pipes cannot cope, and that, therefore they have no choice but to do so. Well, that’s a load of …… Quite literally.

Unprecedented. According to the OED, that means things or events that you’ve never experienced before and for which you could, therefore, not be expected to plan for, or cope with.  Britain. Where it rains. A lot. Has done for years.

Our UK combined sewerage system means that all our water, waste and rain, gets distributed via the same pipes to the sewage treatment works. According to the Environment Agency especially heavy rainfall, particularly in times when the ground is very dry, this system can get overwhelmed. To avoid the inundation of sewage works and potential flooding of homes, streets and businesses with the yukky stuff, the system is designed to overflow occasionally, and it is permitted to discharge excess wastewater into the sea and rivers.

The key word there is occasionally. Occasionally does not mean over one million hours in one year. Water companies are prohibited from making ‘dry spills’ from sewage overflows when there has been no rainfall. Yet they do.

The worst culprit, according Top of the Poops is United Utilities, the north west company responsible for 69,245 sewage overflows in 2022 On average 189.7 times a day, lasting for 425,490 hours (That’s 49.25 years) – in 1,670 different locations across their service area. South West Water, the company that has just announced it wants to extend its hosepipe ban into August, was the second worst culprit.

In England and Wales as a whole, there were on average 825 sewage spills into waterways and coasts a day last year. This was down almost a fifth on 2021, although as we had a significant reduction in the amount of rainfall that year compared with the one before, that’s probably why.

It is so much cheaper to dump sewage into the sea than treat it, especially as the cost of electricity in the UK has increased by 200% and sewage treatment needs lots of electricity.  So, that’s one excuse. It’s also imperative for companies to save money if they want to keep paying gigantic bonuses to their senior executives, and massive dividends to their shareholders. Most of the shareholders of UK water companies, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, are foreign investors, and pension funds. None of whom probably give a you-know-what about the quality of the waterways in the UK. Until, and unless, it affects those bonuses and those dividends.

Industry regulator Ofwat wants these private water companies to link senior executive bosses’ bonuses to whether or not they meet pollution targets. However, most of the companies don’t actually count the amount of  sewage being dumped into waterways, prefering to collect data on when the spills occur and how long they last. That way they can try to fudge the actual amounts, I assume. Ofwat is pretty toothless, so, it seems, is the Environment Agency.

Thames Water chief executive Sarah Bentley, earned a £496,000 bonus on top of a £2m salary last year. 24%. For heading up a company where 40% of the sewage monitoring stations weren’t working last year.  United Utilities was responsible for 40 per cent of all sewage spills last year. Steven Mogford, its chief executive received a £727,000 bonus as part of his £3.2million pay packet.

I haven’t got the space or the mental bandwidth to really go to town on how I feel about all this. If this issue fills you with as much horror as it does me – and it should, it really should, then keep up with what Surfers against Sewage, Top of the Poops and other active groups are doing. You could do worse than follow Feargal Sharkey (yes, the Undertones guy) and Deborah Meaden on Twitter. And write to your MP. Get them to do something. Even though 265 of them voted in Parliament against an amendment to a Bill that would prevent privatised water companies from discharging raw sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas.


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source: Environment Agency. The areas where raw sewage is discharged into rivers and seas around the UK. All. The. Time.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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