Cross-party bloc of MPs back action on sewage discharge into rivers

Private member’s bill seeks to ensure water firms do more to clean up their act on untreated waste

More than 100 MPs from across different parties are supporting a parliamentary bid to stop water companies discharging untreated sewage into rivers.

Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee, is seeking in a private member’s bill to place a duty on water companies to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and inland waterways.

The second reading of Dunne’s bill takes place on 22 January. It will require water companies to set out plans to progressively reduce their reliance on the use of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which discharge untreated effluent after heavy rain.

Untreated sewage was released into English rivers more than 200,000 times in 2019, the Guardian revealed last year, suggesting the releases have become routine and their scale excessive.

Dunne said: “We have a significant number of MPs from all parties supporting the bill and 50,000 members of the public have signed a petition in support. Pressure is growing for water companies to fix the problem of excessive amounts of sewage being spilled into our rivers.

“The bill is acting as a catalyst for raising the profile of this problem and the government does appear to be recognising that.”

Water companies are given permits by the Environment Agency that allow them to discharge raw sewage into rivers via CSOs after extreme weather events, such as torrential rain, to stop water backing up and flooding homes.

More than 60 discharges a year from a storm overflow should trigger an investigation by the agency, but the Guardian data revealed that some storm overflows released discharges hundreds of times. The Environment Agency relies on water companies to self-monitor their CSOs.

Dunne’s bill would legally require water companies to be more transparent. If it became law, it would make it a legal requirement for them to publicly report on the number, condition, and quality of the sewage being discharged from CSOs and any other sewer catchment assets.

Surfers Against Sewage, which is part of a coalition of groups supporting the bill, presented a 50,000-strong petition to the environment secretary, George Eustice, calling for an end to sewage releases into rivers.

Those supporting the bill include the former Tory cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Damian Green, the Green MP Caroline Lucas and the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

The bill would also require the government to investigate further steps that can be taken by stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, to improve water quality. This could include bestowing bathing status on at least two inland waters every year to improve water quality in rivers.

Last month a popular stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, north Yorkshire, became the first in the UK to be given bathing water status by the government in a victory for campaigners trying to stop the release of untreated sewage.

Several other areas are preparing to submit bids for rivers to be given bathing water status, which would result in stricter testing and require them to be publicly labelled as excellent, good, sufficient or poor.

Across the country, those pushing for their rivers to be given the legal status believe it will help drive up the quality of the water amid unprecedented levels of pollution.

According to the latest assessment by the Environment Agency, just 14% of English rivers are of good ecological standard, a rating that suggests they are as close to their natural state as possible.

No river achieved good chemical status, suggesting pollution from sewage discharge, chemicals and agricultureis having a significant impact on river quality. In 2016, 97% of rivers were judged to have good chemical status, though the standard of testing used this time was tougher.


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Raw sewage discharged into English rivers 375,000 times by water firms
Data from 2021 released at same time as government plan to stop 40% of untreated sewage releases by 2040

Sandra Laville

31, Mar, 2022 @11:19 AM

Article image
Illegal sewage discharge in English rivers 10 times higher than official data suggests
Underreporting by water companies and failure to hold them to account have resulted in ecological damage, analysis shows

Sandra Laville

14, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Raw sewage breaches in UK rivers 10 times greater than watchdog estimates
In 2020 there were 160 breaches of Environment Agency permits to release sewage into rivers, UCL professor tells MPs

Sandra Laville

21, Apr, 2021 @3:44 PM

Article image
Water firms discharged raw sewage into English waters 400,000 times last year
Data published for first time by Environment Agency shows 27% increase on previous year

Sandra Laville

31, Mar, 2021 @10:34 AM

Article image
George Eustice says water firms must cut sewage releases into rivers and sea
Environment secretary says water companies too reliant on overflows discharging pollution after storms

Sandra Laville

22, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Water companies dumping sewage during dry weather, SAS report finds
Report exposes scale of human waste discharges into UK waters, including potentially illegal ‘dry spills’

Helena Horton Environment reporter

24, Nov, 2022 @4:00 AM

Article image
Southern Water must pay for its pollution spills, watchdog told
Environmental groups condemn cutting of company’s fine from £37.7m to £3m

Sandra Laville

18, Jul, 2019 @3:18 PM

Article image
Push for bathing water quality hailed as 'game changer' for UK rivers
Environment Agency boss calls for more funding to help public embrace wild swimming

Sandra Laville

06, Feb, 2020 @2:38 PM

Article image
Lawyers challenge water firm’s immunity over sewage discharge
Exclusive: Campaigners fight decision that United Utilities cannot face private legal action for outflows of sewage into canal

Sandra Laville

26, Jan, 2022 @11:55 AM

Article image
Severn Trent Water fined £1.5m for illegal sewage discharges
Firm illegally discharged about 360,000 litres of raw sewage from Worcestershire treatment plants in 2018

Sandra Laville Environment correspondent

08, Dec, 2021 @3:52 PM