Southern Water fined record £2m for sewage leak on Kent beaches

Thanet council forced to close beaches for nine days due to ‘catastrophic’ leakage and public health concerns

Southern Water has been fined a record £2m for flooding beaches in Kent with raw sewage, leaving them closed to the public for nine days.

The Environment Agency called the event “catastrophic”, while the judge at Maidstone crown court said on Monday that Southern Water’s repeat offending was “wholly unacceptable”. The company apologised unreservedly, as it did when fined £200,000 in 2013 for similar offences.

Southern Water’s wastewater pumping station at Margate suffered a series of failures in late May and early June 2012, which left it unable to cope with heavy rain. As a result raw sewage poured on to beaches, which were left strewn with tampons, condoms and other debris and cost more than £400,000 to clean up.

Due to health concerns, Thanet district council was forced to close beaches for nine consecutive days, including the Queen’s diamond jubilee bank holiday weekend. There were further illegal discharges from the pumping station in 2014, again forcing beach closures.

Water companies have been the most frequent polluters of beaches and rivers in England. After criticism that fines were too low to be deterrents to these highly profitable companies, the sentencing guidelines were increased significantly in July 2014. However, it is still too early to tell if pollution incidents are now reducing.

Judge Adele Williams, who imposed the £2m fine – almost double the previous highest, said: “The message must go out to directors and shareholders that repeated offending of this nature is wholly unacceptable.” She said Southern Water’s problems at Margate had first been identified in 2010.

The company was prosecuted by the Environment Agency (EA), which in court described the incident as “catastrophic”. Julie Foley, the EA’s area manager, said: “Southern Water unlawfully discharged huge volumes of sewage on to the beach and into the sea. [This] resulted in risk to public health, polluted a considerable length of coastline, including numerous beaches, and resulted in a negative impact on Thanet, which is an area heavily reliant on the local tourism economy.”

Southern Water’s director, Simon Oates, said: “We apologise unreservedly for the failure of the wastewater pumping station at Foreness Point near Margate. Since 2012 we have invested £4m in the site and have a further £6m investment plan.”

“This is clearly a regrettable incident which impacted on the area and I am pleased that Southern Water has taken full responsibility for it today,” said Madeline Homer, CEO of Thanet district council. “I am, however, encouraged that in recent years Southern Water has made significant investment to improve the site and is taking a much more collaborative approach.”

Water companies have been frequently criticised for making huge profits and awarding large shareholder dividends, while paying little or no corporation tax. In October 2015, the National Audit Office found that an £800m windfall for water companies had not been passed on to consumers.

In 2015-16, Southern Water made an operating profit of £284m, representing 35% of its turnover. Judge Williams fined the company £500,000 in 2014 for another sewage pollution incident in Kent, while in 2015 the company was fined £187,000 for allowing 40m litres of untreated sewage to pour into the sea near East Worthing.

In September, Southern Water was named as the most complained-against water company in the country, for the fourth year a row. The company is owned by a consortium of private equity and infrastructure investors and pension funds.

Contributor

Damian Carrington

The GuardianTramp

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