Raw deal: discontent is rising as water companies pump sewage into UK waters

More untreated sewage is being pumped into our seas and rivers than ever before. And anger at fat cat bosses and toothless regulators is running deep. Frankie Adkins meets the people determined to make waves

With the summer coming to an end, Caitlin Edwards hoped to maximise time with her mother, Jayne Etherington, before returning to university. Feeling lucky to live near some of the most spectacular beaches in Pembrokeshire, the pair decided to brave a dip in the sea together every day – no matter the weather. But when the 22-year-old fastened her goggles one August morning, she had no idea that a short swim on her beloved Welsh coastline would be the beginning of a month-long ordeal that would see her hospitalised with a life-threatening infection. Five days after experiencing severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea, Edwards checked into A&E, where she was told E coli had led to haemolytic uraemic syndrome, a rare condition damaging her kidneys. After a succession of blood transfusions and dialysis, she was able to leave hospital three weeks later, but she was left wondering: “How can this happen to a healthy 22-year-old?”

Public Health Wales concluded that the most likely cause was untreated sewage – harmful bacteria from contaminated water had passed into her intestine. As it turns out, Etherington had missed public health alerts that sewage was spewing on to four Welsh beaches, including the one she chose for a carefree swim shortly before. After the incident a spokesperson for Welsh Water said of combined storm overflows (CSOs) – which are valves that release sewage in heavy rainfall – “This is what they are designed to do when the wastewater network in an area reaches capacity due to the volume of rainwater, in it to prevent sewers from flooding customers’ homes and businesses. While we cannot completely remove CSOs from our system, as it would cost anywhere between £9 and £14bn and involve digging up almost every street in Wales, our CSOs are mainly operating as designed and permitted. However, we recognise that with environmental legislation tightening and customer expectations changing, more needs to be done to improve their performance.”

But, says Jayne Etherington, “Pembrokeshire is our place. There’s a word in Welsh, cynefin, which is a sense of pride and belonging in where you live.” Like many from coastal communities, the ocean intertwines with identity; the family’s ancestors were fishing folk and they grew up splashing in the waves. “It’s heartbreaking that the sea, which we perceive as so beautiful and healthy, is now tarnished.”

Dangerous waters: swimmers at Tankerton Beach.
Dangerous waters: swimmers at Tankerton Beach. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

The question of what is being pumped into our seas and rivers and why is one that water companies and regulators have found themselves scrambling to answer, after a wave of demonstrators swept the country this summer demanding answers. The CSOs are nothing new – they have been relied upon for decades to reduce strain on the UK’s centuries-old sewage system. Usually, wastewater from bathrooms and kitchens is combined with rainwater and carried to a treatment works. But following extreme weather, it’s legal to release partially or untreated sewage into waterways, to prevent floods in residential areas.

Although water companies will insist that 95-97% of these overflows are typically rainwater, this summer was awash with stories of horrified swimmers paddling past floating excrement, or falling ill after sewage overflows.

As outrage grew, so too did accusations of historic failures in our wastewater system dating back decades to when water treatment was privatised in 1989. A litany of reasons – from corporate profiteering to Brexit and feeble regulation – has led critics to conclude that today’s crisis could have been averted.

In early October, communities up and down the UK united in various states of undress, voicing their rage at the scale with which raw sewage is seeping into our waterways. Speedo-clad ravers in Bristol, synchronised swimmers in Cornwall, protesters outside London’s Parliament in swim caps and hazmat suits – all were calling time on the 9m hours of sewage being pumped into English and Welsh rivers and seas since 2016. ​​

A man on the beach with an orange gas mask on and a sweatshirt saying Surfers Against Sewage
Raw deal: Surfers Against Sewage in Cornwall. Photograph: Charlie Bryan/Avalon

Whitstable was home to the most high-profile demonstration, with 2,000 people congregating on Tankerton beach wearing red. At odds with the seaside town’s pastel-coloured beach huts and nostalgic sweet shops, the beach was cordoned off into a dramatic crime scene, with evidence markers stipulating historic sewage incidents from the region’s water supplier, Southern Water.

Afterwards, SOS Whitstable, the group masterminding the protest, said they were flooded with messages from “people all over the country who shared their own stories and disgust at the situation with us on social media”. Ailments related to swimming in raw sewage included UTIs, ear and skin infections, with vomiting and diarrhoea the most common symptoms. Since the protest, Southern Water has said it’s working with councils and other stakeholders to remove rainfall from the sewage network, using engineering and nature-based solutions. But not everyone is thrilled with the attention that these stunts are amassing. Almost synonymous with Whitstable is its oyster industry.

“We’re on a knife edge,” says James Green, director of the family-run Whitstable Oyster Company. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they can absorb bacteria and viruses, including those lingering in untreated sewage. Green still faces repercussions from an incident last summer, in which his company closed for two months after an estimated 100 people reported norovirus symptoms, thought to be linked to oysters. He claims that the outbreak, which cost the business a small fortune, was actually related to sewage discharges earlier that month. A Southern Water spokesperson said: “Bathing water quality has been transformed over the past 30 years and we will continue to go further and make water quality even better. Sea water and beaches are affected by many sources of pollution, as the Environment Agency Pollution Risk forecasts explain. Ships, marine and bird life, road, agricultural and industrial run off, dogs and litter on beaches, and additional pressures from busy beach usage all place pressure on sea water quality.” An extra-stringent risk assessment was put in place by the company – and if heavy rainfall and sewage alerts strike, oysters will not be harvested. Although Green insists business is “safer than it’s ever been,” he fears the negative perception of Whitstable’s water quality will fester.

Graham West, director of shellfish company West Whelks, also says he is struggling to sell local oysters due to their blighted reputation. “If this continues it’ll be the death of Whitstable, as tourists won’t want to come here.”

Three people holding protest banners on the beach
Mucking in: Surfers Against Sewage in Cornwall. Photograph: Charlie Bryan/Avalon

For Surfers Against Sewage, outrage towards the water industry is old news. The charity has worked for more than 20 years to expose what Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy, calls a “scandalous case of profiteering off pollution. There’s a huge amount of money sloshing around in the water industry, yet the companies aren’t investing this into the crumbling infrastructure that’s sitting under our feet.”

The saga began in 1989, when 10 publicly owned water and sewerage authorities were sold off under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – with the majority of shares purchased by overseas organisations. Overlooked for years, the success of privatisation has come under scrutiny recently, with a damning report from Greenwich University likening the water system to an “ATM for investors”. The 40% increase in English water bills since privatisation has not been due to higher investment, the report states, but is a result of interest payments on £47bn of debt stemming from £50bn paid in dividends to shareholders. “So we’ve got a parasitic scenario that doesn’t encourage investment,” says Slack.

Adding fuel to the flames are the multimillion pound salaries routinely paid to water executives. Last year, the CEO of Thames Water took home £2m in pay and bonuses, while in 2021 the company was fined £4m for discharging raw sewage into two Oxford streams. In 2021, annual bonuses paid to water company executives averaged £100,000 – an increase of 20% – despite most of these firms missing sewage pollution targets. Critics blame an opaque regulatory system, which allows these monopolies to self-monitor their sewage overflows. Water firms must inform regulators when they have discharged sewage – a process likened by Slack to “marking its own homework”.

Meanwhile, regulation of the water and sewerage sector largely falls to two bodies – Ofwat and the Environment Agency. Although the EA has the power to issue fines, Slack says it has been financially “gutted” over the years, resulting in a “massively reduced mechanism to hold polluters to account”. Since 2010, funding for the EA’s work has been cut by nearly two-thirds – rendering it “toothless” when enforcing serious prosecutions, according to agency staff.

On top of this, analysis commissioned by the Liberal Democrats found many sewage monitors were unreliable. They claim nearly a quarter of discharges went unmonitored last year, while on the honeypot coastline of Cornwall and Devon, one in eight water monitoring devices was missing or not working.. Surfers Against Sewage has attempted to map these overflows through their Safer Seas and Rivers Service – an app that pinpoints sewage discharges and pollution forecasts across the country. When opening the app after a rainy day, users are likely to see a depressing number of red crosses dotting the UK’s coastline – suggesting sewage has been discharged in the last 48 hours.

Brexit may have also played a hand in the sorry state of our rivers and seas, as we are no longer bound by an international water quality framework. Critics say this correlates to a 27-fold increase in untreated sewage discharges in the past five years. The UK no longer adheres to the EU’s Bathing Water Directive, which gives some environmental protection to areas that attract a high number of bathers. When it was a member, however, the UK consistently ranked near the bottom of water-quality league tables.

Dozens of people gathered together on the beach in red tops holding protest banners
Clean fight: Tankerton beach in Whitstable. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

“There is a very real risk that we get left behind and become the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ again,” says Slack, a smear given to Britain in the 1970s, for its spiralling pollution from cars, power stations, farming and bathing waters.

Murmurs emerged from the continent in August when three French politicians accused the British government of allowing the English Channel and North Sea to become “dumping grounds” for leaked sewage – and a risk to marine life.

Yet as public interest mounts, the tide may be turning on water companies – with a series of fines and legal challenges levelled. Southern Water was slapped with a record £90m fine in 2021 after pleading guilty to 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges – in one case turning the north Kent and Hampshire coasts a nauseating “milky white”. The same year, Ofwat and the EA opened a joint investigation into several water companies for environmental performance, spanning more than 2,000 sewage treatment works. Cases are currently open against six water firms and any caught breaching their legal permits, namely how they manage and report performance, could face enforcement action, including fines and even prosecutions.

Water companies have responded with a wave of reforms and an enhanced PR campaign. Southern Water announced a £2bn investment would be made on wastewater assets and environmental projects between 2020 and 2025. A spokesperson said: “Our focus will always be to serve our customers, protect the environment and ensure our place as a key driver of regional economies.”

A tall pole sticking up from the sea
Deep water: a sewage outlet marker. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

Progress stalled last year when an amendment to the Environment Bill was rejected in the House of Lords, which would have put a legal duty on companies to end the discharge of untreated sewage from storm overflows. Instead, the government announced a Storm Reduction Overflow Plan to improve storm overflows into or near designated bathing water by 2035 and the rest by 2050.

Campaigners have branded the reforms “unambitious”, arguing pollution will continue, unstymied, until 2050. Jo Curd, who organised a recent sewage protest in Falmouth, referenced the countless times a sewage alert has prevented her family from enjoying the water. “My son is seven – and he’ll be 22 by 2035. That’s too late for him and all the other little ones.”

Some are threatening legal action if the government doesn’t bring forward its targets. The Good Law Project is supporting co-claimants, such as an Essex-based oyster business, in demanding the government rewrites its latest sewage reduction plan. “This is one of the biggest scandals of our times, but the government has no plans to stop it anytime soon. This is not just incredibly dangerous, we believe it is also unlawful,” says director, Jo Maugham.

Often, it is the public who have held a magnifying glass to the water sector – through rigorous campaigning, testing, and sometimes, sifting through sewage. It took Becky Malby, co-founder of the Ilkley Clean River Group, four years to ensure a stretch of the River Wharfe, in Yorkshire, achieved bathing status. On stifling summer days the spot is descended upon for picnics, sunbathing and the launching of dinghies – but all the while “kids are down there sitting among shit and pebbles by the river”, says Malby.

Rivers are perhaps the forgotten victims of sewage pollution, with a “chemical cocktail” from agricultural runoff, roads, single-use plastics and sewage leaving them in a desperate state. Only 14% of rivers in England achieved “good” ecological status, and all were of “poor” chemical status. Prior to the River Wharfe site in 2020, bathing status was granted almost exclusively to coasts and lakes. Certified by Defra, there is only one other river – in Oxford – with this status. “It was ridiculously bureaucratic,” Malby says, involving copious citizen scientists, with volunteers counting and surveying people and facilities at the bathing site. However, the point of achieving bathing status was accountability – for water quality testing to be made public. “We wanted testing and we wanted signage – and the public outcry at a sign that says you’re swimming in shit,” she adds. “Then we wanted that humiliation to trigger a clean-up.”

Two women in a makeshift hut on the beach, their hands to their foreheads looking out, with signs nearby saying ‘poo watch’
Poo patrol: protesters in Southend. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

But bathing status was no golden bullet in the mission to shame water companies. Malby said only a “pinprick” of the river is designated while raw sewage is still discharged upstream.

It came as no surprise to Malby that in 2022 the bathing water site was classified as “poor” – meaning water quality did not meet minimum standards.

“They say it’s due to a Victorian sewage system. We say to them you don’t go to the doctors and they give you a leech. The world’s moved on,” she added.

However, bathing designation has encouraged funding from Yorkshire Water, which services the region. A spokesperson said: “We will have invested £13m in Ilkley and the areas upstream. In the coming weeks we will be laying a new sewer in the town and we are trialling a smart wastewater network in the area.”

Malby’s hope is that Ilkley’s bathing status will establish a “national template,” improving water quality in the UK’s network of rivers. Currently, the Ilkey Clean River Group is supporting 50 other campaign groups scattered across the UK with their bathing water applications.

But resentment runs deep. “So much public money has been wasted. All the shock and horror about how prevalent this was and our regulators didn’t know. It’s something that the public had to go and find out,” she says. “The social injustice of it is horrendous. People have made such huge profits out of this and our inheritance is that you can’t take your kids to the seaside or the river.”

Frankie Adkins

The GuardianTramp

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