Government may have broken the law over sewage dumping fiasco

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) says the government may have broken environmental laws over regulating water companies’ management of sewage.

The watchdog launched an investigation into the regulation of sewage by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and Ofwat in June last year after receiving a complaint regarding alleged failures to comply with legal duties relating to the monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ management of sewage.

OEP chief regulatory officer Helen Venn said investigations so far show: “there may have been misinterpretations of some key points of law”.

Venn added that untreated sewage should only be allowed in “exceptional circumstances” such as heavy rainfall.

“It appears that the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently, permitting such discharges to occur more often,” she added.

For Defra, the potential failures relate to urban waste water legislation, water quality legislation and its duty to make enforcement orders where sewerage companies fail to comply with their own duties to effectually deal with sewage.

In response to the announcement Defra said: “The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.”

“While we do not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”

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For the Environment Agency, the potential failures relate to the requirements of urban waste water legislation and the Agency’s resulting role in devising guidance, setting permit conditions for sewage, and reviewing and enforcing of such conditions.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We welcome this investigation from the Office for Environmental Protection and we share their ambition to drive improvements in water quality.”

For Ofwat, the potential failures relate to its interpretation of sewerage undertakers’ duties to effectually deal with sewage and Ofwat’s duty to make enforcement orders where sewerage undertakers fail to comply with such duties.

Ofwat told the BBC: “We welcome the OEP’s considerations, particularly on the clarity of responsibilities for the protection of the environment and we will work with them as their investigation moves forward.”

Through its investigation, the OEP will clarify if the governmental bodies have have failed to comply with their duties and will seek to improve regulations if failures are found. The bodies have two months to respond.

Greenpeace UK political campaigner Megan Corton Scott said: “Over the last few years the greed of water companies has been exposed, and we have all been shocked at how they have been allowed to get away with such severe environmental damage and reckless profiteering.

“We know that the sewage crisis is a stain on our country, it is unacceptable to use nature reserves and beaches as open toilets, and it is the governments responsibility to stop this from happening.”

“The polluting companies have been allowed to take billions in dividends and bonuses for failing to do their job. This announcement hopefully signals a turning of the tide in how the government protects our rivers and seas,” she added.

Nature and the environmentNewsPolicy

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