With rising public concern and letters proving regulators had warned water company CEOs about legally dumping untreated sewage into UK waterways, could the government face the European Court of Justice again over risks to public health?
During the time that prime ministerial candidate, Liz Truss was Secretary of State for the environment, £235m was cut from the Environment Agency, which ‘doubled sewage discharge’ over five years. Last year, wastewater companies in England and Wales failed to meet their pollution or sewage flood targets for the year.
In 2012, the EU Commission took the UK Gov to the European Court of Justice over allowing water companies to dump sewage into rivers. The court ruled that it was illegal and that sewage overflows should only ever be used in “exceptional situations”, which could include ‘unforeseen circumstances’. Which could be interpreted as a storm or sudden severe weather.
While it has been reported that recent sewage leaks in waterways across the UK were brought about by system overflows caused by heavy rain, there is growing concern about public health and the government’s decisions to cut vital funding which was passed off as ‘efficiency savings’.
Billions of litres of sewage were dumped in 2021
Now, over 40 beaches, swimming spots and rivers in England and Wales have had pollution warnings last week after heavy rain caused sewage systems to flood. Last year, Southern Water was fined a record £90 million for dumping billions of litres of untreated sewage into the sea which affected Kent, West Sussex and Hampshire.
Last year, the water regulator Ofwat wrote to UK water companies to remind them of their statutory obligations under section 94 of the Water Industry Act 1991 (WIA).
Following the dumping of billions of litres of untreated sewage in 2021, Ofwat wrote to water and sewage company CEOs to remind them of their legal duty.
David Black, Interim Chief Executive of Ofwat stated in his letter:
“All companies have been allowed funding to comply with their legal obligations and each year your board certifies to Ofwat that your company has sufficient financial resources, management resources and systems of planning and internal control to carry out its regulated activities, which includes compliance with section 94 and related licence conditions.”
A threat to public health
The right to health is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). The UK is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This means the UK is bound, by international law, to protect the right to health.
According to Surfers Against Sewage, only 14% of rivers in the UK meet ‘good ecological status’. While three in four “pose a serious risk to human health”. The group which has launched a petition to demand that 200 rivers be acceptable for activity by 2030, focuses on ending sewage pollution in our waterways.
Surfers Against Sewage stated: “The UK’s rivers are spiralling towards environmental collapse, posing a serious threat to human health to the increasing number of people who use them for their physical and mental wellbeing.”
Jim McManus, president of the UK’s Association of Directors of Public Health, told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on 19 August: “It harms the economy, it harms ecosystems, it harms health – We need a sewage system fit for the 21st century that stops discharging sewage wherever possible.”
Some GPs have publicly shown their concern over adverse health risks the public may face if they have been in contact with contaminated water.
Dr Amir Khan, the best-selling author and GP stated: “Now raw sewage is being dumped into our waterways, I will routinely be asking any patient coming in with: Eye/ear infections, New skin rashes, Diarrhoea/vomiting, Abdominal pain Urinary tract infections and more.”
Public concern and distrust
In January 2022, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on water quality in rivers. The committee found there was “mounting public concern” about sewage pollution, which was “reflected in backbench proposals” during the passage of the Environment Bill in the House of Lords.
The committee concluded:” The public are rightly shocked when they discover that untreated or partially treated sewage is regularly dumped into rivers and streams in England.”
It was also found that public confidence in regulatory structures was “understandably low”. The committee argued that it was “vital” the public could trust regulators to hold water companies to account and ensure that “high levels of water quality in rivers were achieved and maintained”.