Sewage sleuths: the men who revealed the slow, dirty death of Welsh and English rivers – The Axe

The Long Read in yesterday’s Guardian concerned an investigation by amateur sleuths: retired professor Peter Hammond and retired detective superintendent Ashley Smith. Between them they have uncovered how the clean-up of our rivers has stalled in the past couple of decades, and the reasons why.

This extract describes the situation on the Axe.

Oliver Bullough (Extract)

…When EA inspectors checked farms along the River Axe in south-west England between 2016 and 2019, they found that almost every farm was non-compliant with the rules for storing slurry, silage or fuel oil, all of which are harmful if they leach into rivers. On almost half of the farms, the inspectors saw pollutants entering the waterway. Farmers told the inspectors they had been flouting the rules because they saw the risk of enforcement as being so low – a problem the regulators know all too well. “Last year, we had sufficient resources that would allow us, in theory, to visit every farm … less than once every 200 years,” Bevan, the EA chief executive, told a parliamentary committee last year. “That is not a great disincentive to a farmer to stay on the right side of the line.”

“I get bloody irritated, and so do most people in the EA,” one veteran EA inspector told me. “The problem is that we don’t have the resources or the legislative muscle to do what everyone knows we need to do. But you only have to look at some of the farms in Herefordshire – they are big businesses, they are not scared of loose legislation or penalty notices. They can ignore all that.”

A year ago, the government provided funding for 50 additional inspectors to check farms in England, which will increase the headcount to 80, but that will only repair some of the damage caused by a decade of underfunding. “Given the length of the river system in this country, having only a few hundred people to oversee them is a pretty tall ask,” said Bevan, in evidence to parliament.

Such interventions from Bevan are noteworthy for their laconic understatement, but the ex-inspectors and current insiders who were prepared to talk to me spoke more in the language of crisis. Although little is being done to prevent sewage and manure from poisoning our rivers, at least we recognise the problem and are seeking to understand it. With regard to other threats, such as those from antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms, microplastics or “forever chemicals” such as polyfluoroalkyl substances – which are used in dozens of consumer products and have been linked to multiple serious diseases – the collapse in funding has reduced research, meaning we are always looking at pollution in the rear view mirror. “We don’t know what’s getting into the rivers. Nobody’s looking,” said another former EA inspector who took early retirement thanks to the funding cuts. “That’s a complete failure.”

So, what’s the answer? Some local groups – such as the Friends of the Upper Wye and the Wye Salmon Association, near where I live – have started testing the rivers for themselves, trying to discover the extent and the origin of the pollution. But gathering the volume of data that Hammond had access to requires resources far beyond even the largest NGOs. Truly understanding what is happening to our waterways could only come from the regulators doing the kind of monitoring and analysis they used to do before their budgets were gutted….