Untreated sewage is being discharged into Britain’s waterways at record levels. This is not only damaging the ecosystem of the rivers and threatening wildlife, but it is also putting human health at risk and forcing beaches to ban swimming.
The government recently introduced much tougher fines for water companies who regularly breach pollution regulations, but some commentators and environmental campaigners have said that these measures do not go far enough.
Water companies are legally allowed to discharge sewage from storm drains into rivers and the sea during episodes of especially severe rainfall. However, this was meant to be used as an emergency backstop no more than once or twice a year. Research shows that in fact, many water companies are allowing sewage dumps to happen almost every day.
According to the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, 389,000 tonnes of raw sewage was discharged into the waterways of the UK in 2022. This means that 75% of rivers are potentially harmful to human health. Sewage was dumped into areas of designated bathing water more than 5,000 times between May and September 2022.
The Guardian reports that the record levels of pollution following a storm recently led to the temporary closure of eight beaches in northwest England, including Blackpool Central. This is affecting the vital tourist trade that the area relies on to prop up the local economy. It’s not an affluent area, and issues such as this can have a hugely damaging negative impact.
Chris Webb, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Blackpool South, said: “It’s glorious sunshine here – and the beaches are out of bounds for tourists and local children, many of whom live in poverty.”
“United Utilities did a major upgrade a few years ago that was supposed to prevent this, so it’s remarkable to see such a massive spill. This council has worked hard to get these beaches to a good standard. We had 19 million visitors to Blackpool last year – now many people will think twice about coming.”
A spokesperson for United Utilities said: “On Monday night, following intense rain, several storm overflows operated on the Fylde coast. If the current dry weather continues we are confident that the storm overflows will not operate again. The Environment Agency and local authorities will provide updates on when the advice not to swim can be lifted.
They added that a damaged pipe had exacerbated the problem. “The work to repair the pipe at our treatment works continues round the clock.”
Some water company bosses, many of whom command huge salaries and bonuses, have apologised for the unacceptable levels of sewage spills, and promised to make major new investment in wastewater management systems.
In a joint statement, they pledged a new £10bn investment in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which will amount to the biggest upgrading of the sewerage system since the Victorian era. They claim that this will reduce sewage spills by up to 140,000 per year compared to 2020 levels.
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