Rivers: Sewage

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs written question – answered at on 14 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench

To ask His Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the evidence presented in the BBC Panorama programme, The Water Pollution Cover-Up, broadcast in December 2023, on sewage pollution in rivers.

Photo of Lord Douglas-Miller Lord Douglas-Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Due to the seriousness of the incident at Cunsey Beck, Windermere and the fact that a definitive pollution source had not been identified, the Environment Agency (EA) asked the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to review their response to the incident.

The EA recognise things should have been done better, that is why improvements have been made to water quality monitoring in the area, including installing sensors that monitor river quality in real time. Learning has been shared within the Environment Agency to inform future responses.

Under operator self-monitoring, introduced in 2009, water and sewerage companies are responsible for collecting and analysing samples of their discharges to the environment. They have a legal duty to report any breach of their permits. A failure to self-report will be taken into consideration when enforcement options are being considered.

The EA assesses and records every incident report it receives – between 70,000 and 100,000 a year. They attend those incidents where there is a significant risk, with a target to attend all Category 1 and 2 serious pollution incidents.

Water companies cannot downgrade an incident category. When a pollution event occurs, the initial incident categorisation is set by the Environment Agency based on the initial information, often based on a ‘worst case scenario’. The incident is given a final categorisation by the EA once the case has been fully investigated.

In June 2023, the EA launched its Water Industry Transformation Programme, outlining that it would be transforming the way it regulates the sector, embedding a new approach that targets resource and interventions to uncover non-compliance and drive better performance from the water industry. This includes looking at how incidents are investigated and how they are categorised.

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