The regulator Ofwat has expanded its investigation into the dumping of raw sewage to include South West Water after finding “shocking” failures in the way the majority of water companies run their waste treatment works.
Ofwat said on Tuesday it had extended its inquiry after heightened concerns about South West Water’s environmental performance and suggestions it was not complying with its legal obligations.
The enforcement action being taken by the regulator is part of a large inquiry into potentially illegal dumping of raw sewage by privatised water companies. Six out of nine companies – Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Thames Water, Wessex Water, Yorkshire Water and now South West Water – have been served formal notices to gather further information for enforcement purposes, the regulator said.
In 2020 the Guardian revealed that water firms had discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times the previous year. And in 2021 Ofwat and the Environment Agency announced an investigation into potentially illegal dumping of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters by water companies.
The inquiry began after water companies admitted they may have illegally released untreated human effluent into rivers and waterways.
Water companies are allowed to self-report breaches of permits that allow them to release raw sewage in exceptional circumstances via storm overflows.
The six companies are being investigated because of concerns they have a significant number of wastewater treatment works that may not be compliant with the permits – and are therefore dumping sewage potentially illegally – as well as concerns about how each company manages its compliance with its environmental obligations and whether it has provided the information required to the regulator or withheld data.
David Black, Ofwat’s chief executive, said: “As we gather and analyse more information, including data on storm overflow spills, our concerns have grown further about South West Water’s operation of its wastewater assets and environmental performance. As a result, we have opened an additional enforcement case into South West Water.
“We have now opened enforcement cases against the majority of wastewater companies in England and Wales. From what we have seen so far, the scale of the issue here is shocking – companies must resolve any problems at wastewater treatment works and do so quickly. Where they have breached their obligations, we will not hesitate to act.”
Alongside the Ofwat investigation, the Environment Agency is involved in a criminal investigation into potentially illegal sewage discharging by water companies.
It involves more than 2,000 sewage treatment works, nearly a third of the total number in England and Wales, with any company caught breaching their legal permits liable to enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions.
Feargal Sharkey, a campaigner on clean rivers, said: “That makes six of the nine English water companies under investigation for widespread and serious non-compliance. Makes you wonder what the regulator has been doing all these years.”
Mike Keil, a senior director of policy at the Consumer Council for Water, research and campaigns, said: “It’s a betrayal of customers’ trust and expectations if a sewerage company fails to comply with its basic duties and puts at risk the health of rivers and habitats for wildlife that the majority of people have told us they want to see improved, not undermined.
“All six of the companies facing the threat of enforcement action should now urgently act to ensure they are complying with their responsibilities and fixing any harm that might have been caused.”
South West Water said: “We are taking Ofwat’s decision very seriously, we will provide any further information required as part of its review into South West Water. It is important that Ofwat and the public can have ongoing confidence in our commitment to the environment.
“Earlier this year, we conducted a line by line review of our plans and announced our largest environmental programme in 15 years. This will reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round and reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030.”