Environmental campaigners have unveiled mock blue plaques to ‘honour’ the MPs and the Government who voted against tougher laws on dumping raw sewage in our oceans. Members of ESCAPE (End Sewage Convoys And Pollution Exmouth), Transition Exmouth, Plastic Free Exmouth, Tidelines, Women Swimmin’ and TEDS swimming group joined together as part of a national day of action with Extinction Rebellion across the UK.
Olivier Vergnault www.devonlive.com
They were joined in Cornwall by members of Extinction Rebellion, Surfers Against Sewage, local medical professionals to highlight issues of decreasing water quality around the UK from sewage discharges into the sea and rivers due to storm overflows. The gatherings were part of a national day of action, with those involved saying more needed to be done to prevent pollution incidents. There were similar protests in Teignmouth too.
In October 2021, the vast majority of Conservative MPs, including Simon Jupp, MP for Exmouth, voted against an amendment to the Environment Act 2021 that would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers.
Local councillor Joe Whibley who took part in the day of action, said: “This is an awful situation for our environment, not to mention the fact that it could devastate our growing watersports-related tourism ventures. We’re horrified every time a BBC crew turns up to report on the state of the waters.
“South West Water have so far offered nothing quick and nothing concrete. Together with the Environment Agency, we need our representatives to create tougher standards for what is, and more importantly what isn’t, acceptable.”
Mary Culhane of Women Swimmin’ added: “As year-round swimmers we’re taking risks entering the water – the situation is so bad that last year Exmouth was ranked as the second worst Blue Flag beach for sewage spills in Devon, with the beach closed to swimmers in September. Profiteering water companies rake in multi-million-pound profits and hand huge bonuses to their CEOs whilst we are left to swim in raw sewage.”
South West Water (SWW) said it had been working hard to reduce such incidents. It added that, in the last bathing season, it had “reduced spills by 50% on the previous year, with the duration of those spills down by 75%”.
However according to figures gathered by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, the utility company’s Maer Lane works spilled sewage at Exmouth beach 62 times for a total of 857 hours during 2020, increasing to 74 times for 1,128 hours during 2021.
Environmental groups said the situation is made worse by the fact that the company also treats huge amounts of sewage from other parts of Devon which only adds to the problem. The campaigners Over 26 million litres were trucked in during 2020 from 16 locations throughout East Devon in 3,008 HGV movements. That’s enough to fill more than 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools with human faeces. Since 2021, data from South West Water shows that 80 tankers a month bring sludge into the town.
ESCAPE has been working locally with Surfers Against Sewage and Exmouth Town Council to raise awareness after examining data. An ESCAPE spokesperson said: “A revolving door of Environment Secretaries and a government in disarray has led to little action being taken to hold water companies to account, especially the poorest performers like South West Water.
“Instead, we just get empty threats from government and lethargy from industry regulators. To my mind what we’re seeing can only be described as complete abandonment of responsibility for pollution on the part of water companies and the Environment Agency.”
Anne-Marie Culhane from Tidelines added: “Storm sewage overflows can contain anything that goes down the drains – from human waste to household chemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics. As well as potentially harming human health, frequent sewage discharges can seriously damage river and ocean ecosystems, for example by creating algal blooms.
“Chemicals in the water can harm fish, shellfish and other species and reduce oxygen levels in the water which impacts aquatic insects and other species throughout the whole ecosystem and food chain. This is a critical issue. All of us should be bending over backwards to keep our rivers and oceans clear and healthy. What is the Exe/Isca ‘river of fish’ without life?”
South West Water said it had been “working hard to reduce the impact of storm overflows”.
Simon Jupp, MP for East Devon, said: “I recently met with some of the campaigners who were involved in this protest and we’ve started working together to hold South West Water to account. I would never vote to pollute our water, despite some politically motivated claims suggesting otherwise.
“I’m from Devon, I live near the sea in Sidmouth, and I love where we live. If campaigners truly want to hold South West Water’s feet to the fire over their failures, I’d encourage them to put down their placards and work with me. I will continue to work with local groups and councils to get South West Water to clean up their act.”
[Simon Jupp’s and the government’s record on “light touch” regulation including abandoning the principle of a legal target for river health, and postponing a deadline for agricultural run-off reduction by three years (from 2037 to 2040), announced in December, can be found here. What goes in our rivers ends in the sea. – Owl]