New sewage spill policy ‘like asking arsonists to assess fire damage’

“Now you see it, now you don’t!” Catch phrase of the trickster. – Owl

The government response [to pollution] appears to be to change how incidents are classified, rather than greater effort to tackle the cause of them.

The Environment Agency has told its officials to cut back on inspections of bathing water pollution incidents and rely instead on water company assessments.

Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor 

England has more than 400 designated bathing waters from beaches to lakes in the Cotswolds and The Serpentine river in London. However, some are regularly hit by sewage spills including those that have plagued the Isle of Wight, a Cornish cove and beaches along the southeast coast in recent weeks.

Despite rising public concern over the issue, the country’s environment regulator has privately issued guidance that weakens its inspection regime when people report pollution incidents.

One UN campaigner said the shift was “like asking an arsonist to assess fire damage” and a “hammer blow” to clean water efforts.

Previously, for the two most serious of four categories of incident, “cat 1” and “cat 2”, Environment Agency officers would attend and investigate in person after a member of the public reported pollution.

However, in August, shortly before heavy rains led to a series of shocking sewage spills from Seaford in East Sussex to beaches in Devon and Cornwall, the regulator issued supplementary guidance to staff on how to classify bathing water incidents.

Officials have now been told that their usual presumption “that an impact has occurred” can be overturned if “appropriate information to demonstrate no impact has been provided by the water company.”

A source at the agency said: “It used to be: incident reported, someone from the EA on site, then contact the water company to see what they have to say about it. You’re now missing that ‘someone on site’.”

Lewis Pugh, an endurance swimmer who recently became the first person to swim the Red Sea in a bid to increase action at the Cop27 climate conference, said: “Asking water companies to assess their own pollution is like asking an arsonist to assess fire damage. Our beaches are already amongst the most polluted in Europe.”

Pugh, 52, who is the UN Patron of the Oceans, continued: “This is a hammer blow for what remains of our efforts to protect Britain’s coastal waters from pollution. It’s offensive to swimmers, surfers, beach walkers and our precious wildlife.”

The motivation for the new guidance, leaked to Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed and seen by The Times, appears to be concern within government that a growth in bathing water incidents looks bad. Last year there were 126 incidents in bathing waters, most of them caused by sewage. The figure is more than twice that of recent years.

The government response appears to be to change how incidents are classified, rather than greater effort to tackle the cause of them. The document circulated to Environment Agency officers, sensitive enough to be marked “controlled content,” said: “Judging the appropriate classification for bathing water incidents has been recognised as of particular concern.”

Experts working with the water sector said the shift was in line with how regulation on water pollution has changed in recent years. “This is part and parcel of the overall approach which has become apparent over degrading inspections, or heavy prioritisation attached to attending only the worst incidents,” said Alastair Chisholm, director of policy at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.

The water companies “have always” provided impact assessments of pollution events, but the guidance suggests the agency will have to place greater reliance on them, Jo Bradley, formerly a water quality adviser at the Environment Agency, told Unearthed.

The regulator received an increase in its government funding this year. But even its chairman has admitted that cuts in recent years have hampered its ability to undertake inspections. James Bevan told the House of Lords in October “the amount of resource that we have had over the last decade or so … has affected our ability to regulate in certain ways”.

Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said: “It is astonishing that the Environment Agency would even consider asking water companies to mark their own homework given their record on sewage discharges. What’s next, putting Matt Hancock in charge of counting votes for the next bushtucker trial?”

Failure by water companies to properly self-report pollution incidents has been a growing source of controversy, and has led to an investigation into water companies’ sewage treatment plants by the sector’s other main regulator, Ofwat. The regulator wrote to the chief executives of all the wastewater companies last month to raise concerns over firms’ draft improvement plans, which are meant to ensure the “best outcome for the environment”.

“This summer has underlined how important it is for companies to step up and improve their performance. These plans are a chance for them to address some of the key challenges the sector is facing, including storm overflow spills, pollution incidents and sewer flooding,” an Ofwat spokesperson said. “Unfortunately, the draft plans companies have submitted fall short of our expectations.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “There has been no change to how we classify and assess pollution incident reports. We are promoting a precautionary approach which assumes a water quality impact has occurred unless proven otherwise, providing bathers with the best information on any risks associated with using affected bathing waters.”

However the agency went on to implicitly admit there had been a change in guidance as it said the document issued in August provided a greater consistency of approach. In the past fortnight, Environment Agency staff with the Prospect and Unison unions have both voted to go on strike over below-inflation pay offers.