Water company bosses must be jailed for serious pollution, the Environment Agency (EA) has said, as it revealed English water firms have overseen shocking levels of pollution in the last year.
The agency said water firms’ performance on pollution had declined to the worst seen in years. It is calling for chief executives and board members to be jailed if they oversee serious, repeated pollution because they seemed undeterred by enforcement action and court fines for breaching environmental laws.
The environmental performance assessment released on Thursday by the EA gives star ratings for the companies. Southern Water and South West Water were given a one-star rating – which means a poor performance – while four companies: Anglian, Thames, Wessex and Yorkshire, were rated only two stars – meaning they require significant improvement.
Seven water companies oversaw an increase in serious incidents compared with 2020, with 62 serious incidents of pollution for 2021 – the highest since 2013.
There were eight of the most serious category-one incidents, compared with three in 2020. Seven of the nine water companies were responsible for an increase in serious incidents compared with 2020.
The report said: “The sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years … Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable. Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price. The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can. We intend to make it too painful for them to continue as they are.”
Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities performed more positively and maintained four-star ratings.
But the EA said there had been no overall improvement for several years in total incident numbers or compliance with conditions for discharging treated wastewater.
Growing public outrage over the scale of sewage releases into rivers and coastal waters has forced the agenda to become part of mainstream political debate. Citizen scientists and communities across the country are providing evidence of the pollution of waterways by the firms. Howard Boyd said: “It’s appalling that water companies’ performance on pollution has hit a new low.
“Water quality won’t improve until water companies get a grip on their operational performance. For years people have seen executives and investors handsomely rewarded while the environment pays the price.
“Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this. “
The EA wants to company directors to be struck off after overseeing illegal environmental damage.
The EA and Ofwat are carrying out a large investigation into the dumping of raw sewage into waterways by the firms, after shocking failures by the majority of companies. The inquiry started after the water firms admitted they may have been illegally discharging sewage into rivers and seas for years.
Water companies are allowed to self-report breaches of permits that allow them to release raw sewage in exceptional circumstances via storm overflows. Evidence from Prof Peter Hammond, that water firms were responsible for 10 times more sewage dumping than they were disclosing, which was provided to MPs, helped to force the agencies to toughen their stance against the firms.
The EA report on Thursday said water companies were not reporting the total number of pollution incidents. Self-reporting remained at 77%, which was below target. Thames Water performed significantly below target with only 65% of incidents self-reported.
Southern Water and South West Water performed significantly below target for the way they complied with permits which allow them to occasionally release raw sewage from their treatment works.
Hugo Tagholm of charity Surfers Against Sewage said: “The stench of environmental vandalism and rampant profiteering now hangs permanently over the water industry. The industry has catastrophically failed and urgent legislative and legal action must be taken to prevent a few industry fat cats from robbing the nation of clean rivers and coastlines, thriving with life.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “This report shows that water companies are ignoring their legal responsibilities. Water company chiefs cannot continue to make huge profits whilst polluting our waters.
“We will not tolerate this behaviour and we will take robust action if we don’t see urgent improvements.”
Christine McGourty, chief executive of the industry trade body Water UK, said: “Overall, industry must do better … the total number of serious pollution incidents was too high, bucking the recent trend of year-on-year improvements. Tackling this is our single biggest priority and every company has a comprehensive plan in place to make that happen.”