Blue flag beaches suffer sewage spills 100 times during bathing season

Raw sewage spills into the sea more than 100 times during the bathing season at some blue flag beaches, according to water industry data that challenges official claims of excellent water quality.

Ben Webster 

Campaigners are calling on councils to lower the flag when there is a spill to avoid giving swimmers and water sports enthusiasts false assurance.

Almost half of England’s 76 blue flag beaches were affected by sewage spills last year during the official bathing season, from May 15 to September 30, according to analysis by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) of discharge notifications issued by water companies.

There were 123 notifications at Sandown on the Isle of Wight, 108 at Tankerton, in Kent, 92 at Sheerness, also in Kent, and 28 at Scarborough North Bay, North Yorkshire.

Councils left the blue flag flying after notifications, prompting accusations that they prioritise tourism over bathers’ health.

Councils wanting a beach to have blue flag status pay £730 a year to the charity Keep Britain Tidy, which checks it meets minimum standards, including on water quality, cleanliness and information displayed.

On water quality, the sea must be rated “excellent” based on tests carried out by the Environment Agency once a week or more often at one location on the beach during the bathing season.

SAS said the testing gave results only for part of the beach at a specific time and therefore might fail to detect significant sewage pollution. It said there was also a loophole in bathing water regulations under which up to 15 per cent of samples can be discounted when pollution is “exceptional” or “untypical”.

SAS compared Environment Agency ratings for each bathing water location with the number of sewage notifications and found those rated “excellent” had on average twice as many discharge notifications as those rated “sufficient” or “poor”.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, said visitors to beaches could be misled by the blue flags.

“Blue flag status in the public’s mind is an absolute clean bill of health and they would never expect to encounter sewage pollution at one of those beaches,” he said.

He said blue flags should not be flown when there had been a spill because that “could be misleading and might subject people to health risks”.

The Environment Agency issues “pollution risk forecasts” for beaches based on its weekly tests and computer modelling of rainfall, tide, wind and other factors. Councils put up signs warning against bathing in response to these forecasts but SAS said that they were not based on sewage discharge information, meaning they might miss serious pollution incidents.

Testing by volunteers for Hayling Sewage Watch in Hampshire found potentially dangerous levels of faecal pathogens in the water on several days last August at Beachlands, a blue flag beach on Hayling Island.

The highest reading was taken the day before an Environment Agency test that detected no problem.

Southern Water issues online notifications via its Beachbuoy service about sewage spills affecting Beachlands and other beaches in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent.

However, Mike Owens, founder of Hayling Sewage Watch, said most beach visitors would be unaware of the notifications. He said councils should warn swimmers by displaying information on electronic signs and replacing the blue flag with a brown one.

But he said councils used blue flags to attract visitors and were more concerned with protecting tourism income.

Havant borough council, the local authority, said: “There is no evidence, from the data taken by the Environment Agency, that the releases [of storm or wastewater] affect the water quality in the bathing area. In the event of a confirmed pollution incident of the beach the flag would be lowered.”

It said there were signs directing beach visitors to the Beachbuoy service.

Scarborough borough council said there was no legal requirement to notify the public of legal discharges into the sea but that they did put up signs advising against bathing when advised to do so by the Environment Agency.

Canterbury city council said it displayed signs advising against bathing at Tankerton when it received a pollution risk warning but left the blue flag flying.

Sandown town council said its lifeguards flew a red flag when there was a pollution incident but kept the blue flag flying as it was not an indication that it was safe to enter the water.

Swale borough council said it used signs and a red flag to warn people “if swimming isn’t advised due to water quality”.

The Environment Agency said that 95 per cent of bathing waters were classed as good or excellent but there was “clearly much more to do”,

Live pollution tests for bathers

Will this be introduced to East Devon beaches, paid for by South West Water? – Owl

Ben Webster 

Swimmers will be able to get live updates on water quality under plans for real-time monitoring of bacteria from sewage and other sources.

The first monitor will be trialled this summer off Beachlands on Hayling Island in Hampshire, which is visited by up to 7,000 people a day.

Beachlands is a Blue Flag beach, which means it is officially rated as having “excellent” water quality, but it is sometimes contaminated by raw sewage from storm overflow pipes.

The Environment Agency’s existing water quality testing system does not reliably warn swimmers of the risks on the day because it involves taking samples from one location off the beach no more than once a week from May 15 to September 30. The samples are tested in a laboratory and the results take several days to be published.

The new £40,000 Proteus monitor, funded mainly by Southern Water, will be fixed to a buoy around 1,300 ft (400 metres) offshore and will test bacteria levels every 15 minutes all year round. The information will be uploaded automatically to a website where results can be checked.

A second monitor will be installed off Tankerton beach in Kent — and the water company then plans to roll them out at other popular locations.

Mike Owens, the founder of Hayling Sewage Watch, welcomed the monitors, which he said would particularly benefit the growing number of people who swam in the sea all year round, as well as windsurfers, kitesurfers and paddleboarders.

“All bathing waters affected by sewage overflows should have accurate real-time monitors so people can see the quality of the water at the time that they plan to be in it,” he said. “All water companies that pollute bathing waters should fund these monitors.”

Alex Rennie, the leader of Havant borough council, said: “This is new, ground-breaking technology that will allow our residents and visitors to check the water quality at Hayling Island and swim with confidence.

“This will be the first time this system is used in this country and could be the first of many such monitors along our shorelines in the future.”

Surfers Against Sewage, a marine conservation charity, received 286 reports of people falling ill after swimming in the sea or rivers across the UK last year, almost double the previous year’s total. The charity said it was able to link a third of the cases to a notification of a sewage spill.