The UK government on Monday announced plans to increase civil penalties for water companies in the country that pollute the environment by 1,000 times, from the current £250,000 ($286,733) fine to a proposed £250 million fine. of £(286.7 million) per breach.
Intended to act as a motivator to drastically reduce waterborne pollutants, Ranil Jayawardena, the country’s environment secretary, said he hopes water companies will now invest heavily in critical infrastructure to stem the rising tide of serious pollution incidents in recent years. years.
Last year, for example, UK water companies failed to contain 62 pollution incidents that caused serious environmental damage, compared to 44 incidents the previous year.
Jayawardena noted that if the country’s water companies continue to be responsible for rising levels of environmental damage, they could face civil and criminal penalties.
“I have been clear that if water companies do not do what is expected there will be consequences,” the environment secretary said. “Higher financial penalties will have a greater deterrent effect and push water companies to do more and faster when it comes to investing in infrastructure and improving the quality of our water.”
A 1,000-fold increase in the current penalty cap, per individual violation, should get their attention, the Environment Agency hopes.
In line with government pressure for its water companies to step up pollution control, its Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan, released in August this year. The plan proposes a capital investment of £56 billion ($64.2 billion) over 25 years to address shortcomings in the way they treat sewage and sewage.
Storm weirs, the report explains, function as safety valves and discharge excess sewage and rainwater into the environment when the system is under pressure. This built-in security protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage from backing up into streets and homes during heavy storms.
But the population increase has pushed England’s 15,000 storm outbursts to breaking point. Last year, 90% of storm overflows discharged at least once and 5% discharged more than 100 times.
In response to the figures, a spokesperson for Anglian Water, which operates in the East of England region, told OCCRP on Thursday that “we are reinvesting over £200m (£225m dollars) to reduce storm spills in the east of England”. [by 2025] as part of our commitment that storm surges will not cause unhealthy waterways in our region by 2030.”
Frequent wastewater and sewage discharges pose significant health and environmental problems. Humans face increased exposure to waterborne pathogens, while ecosystems can be flooded with pollutants such as microplastics and heavy metals.
Almost ten percent of the UK’s 15,000 overflow sites are near designated bathing areas; a discharge of sewage into these waters at any time would pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of the inhabitants of the community.
In addition, the Environment Agency’s latest assessment showed that 402 inland water bodies in England, almost 10% in the country, failed to achieve good ecological status due to storm overflows. poorly equipped and the resulting pollutants that have seeped into local ecosystems.
Although Anglian Water noted that it falls short of standards in some areas, “protecting, restoring and improving the environment of our region is at the heart of what we do, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously. seriously,” a spokesperson told OCCRP.
As England is primarily a coastal nation, any sewage polluting the water chemistry of the environment will invariably affect the development of its population for generations to come. It is on the basis of these concerns that water companies are today called upon to invest massively in the modernization of their infrastructures to remedy the environmental damage caused by storm overflows.
Simply doing nothing would result in continued and increased risk to the aquatic environment, public health and sewer flooding, according to the report.
So, according to the government plan, water companies are now required to reduce overflow discharges by a quarter from 2020 levels over the next three years. This rate is expected to drop by a further 50% in high priority sites by 2035. And by 2050, no storm overflows will be allowed except in exceptionally heavy rains.
“Our goal to protect the environment remains steadfast,” Anglian Water told OCCRP. “We are ahead of schedule for our £800 million environmental investment program. We know there is no room for complacency and we are absolutely committed to making meaningful progress towards our zero pollution goal.
The other major UK water companies did not respond to requests for comment.
A recommendation made in the Environment Agency report was that water companies manage rainwater better and treat it as a resource, for the benefit of people and the environment, rather than simply allow to mix with treated wastewater.
The government predicts that, in order to help pay for this £56billion infrastructure redevelopment, local water bills will eventually rise on average by just over 10% of the current rate by 2050.
If water companies fail to meet set targets, they could face fines of up to a quarter of a billion pounds, while board members could face prison terms for not have brought serious incidents under control, according to the Environment Agency report.
“This 1,000-fold increase sends a clear signal that we want clean rivers and coasts,” Jayawardena said. “The duty is on the water companies to deliver – the polluter must pay.”