Environmental groups are demanding one of Britain’s biggest water companies be made to pay tens of millions of pounds to restore the damage to habitats and wildlife caused by thousands of pollution spills into the rivers and beaches across the south-east of England.
As details of the scale of the criminal inquiry into the allegedly deliberate misreporting of data and cover-up of thousands of pollution spills by Southern Water emerge, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are calling on the regulator, Ofwat, to review a penalty of £126m imposed on the company last month.
The groups, led by the Angling Trust, have condemned the decision to reduce a fine of £37.7m – as part of the penalty – to just £3m as a lost opportunity. In a letter to the Guardian and in submissions to Ofwat, they are calling for the reduction to be diverted to environmental restoration caused by years of unauthorised pollution spills of raw or partially treated sewage by the privatised water company.
Ofwat has put its decision on the penalty it plans to impose on Southern Water, which operates in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, out for a consultation that ends on Friday. In a letter to the Guardian, the Angling Trust and nine other environmental NGOs are calling on Ofwat to redirect the £34.7m reduction in the fine into efforts to restore the environment damaged by the company.
Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said it was the environment, not customers, who were the victims of the company’s practices over many years.
“If Ofwat is going to reduce the fine Southern Water pays from £37m to £3m, then the difference must be used to compensate the victim: the environment, our rivers and coasts, and the fish and wildlife that call these places home,” said Singleton-White.
A criminal investigation by the Environment Agency into thousands of pollution spills into the rivers and beaches across south-east England and a suspected cover-up by senior and middle managers is said by sources to be unprecedented in its scale and nature.
Documents submitted to Ofwat reveal that employees at the water company would routinely drive tanker loads of sewage from one waste treatment plant to another to dodge water-quality inspections by Environment Agency officials as part of deliberate manipulation of data to avoid millions of pounds in fines.
Southern Water – like other water companies – is allowed to self-report pollution incidents following a change made by the Environment Agency 10 years ago.
The company has not revealed where the pollution incidents took place across its region, which includes some of the south coast’s most visited beaches, saying: “For legal reasons it would not be appropriate for us to share that information at this time; however, we will as soon as we’re able to.” But the scale of the multiple leaks of raw and untreated sewage is likely to amount to several thousand spills over many years.
In documents submitted to Ofwat, Southern Water said that 991 pollution leak incidents or cases where data was deliberately manipulated could have occurred in 245 out of 300 of its wastewater treatment plants. But in a sample of the three years from 2016-18, there were more than 2,000 pollution leaks from just 10 of the company’s 300 wastewater plants, lasting on average between three and five hours. The vast majority of these involved pollution spills that breached Environment Agency regulations, the documents state.
Southern Water has said it is difficult to estimate the impact of historic spills, or determine the severity of the leaks, or their impact on fish and habitats in the waterways.
The regulator issued a £37.7m fine against Southern Water in June for failing to deal effectively with the contents of its sewers, “deliberately” misreporting data and allowing pollution spills of partially treated or untreated sewage to run into the environment for thousands of hours from at least 2014, saying some senior employees were aware of the “potentially illegal practices and facilitated those practices.”
But Ofwat reduced the fine to £3m because, it said, Southern Water cooperated with its inquiry, and agreed to hand over a rebate of £12 a year to its 4.2 million customers over five years – a total of £123m.
Singleton-White said he feared many of the pollution incidents might never be brought to court “due to the obvious lack of data caused by wilful misreporting”.
“This only strengthens the case for the imposition of an environmental payment in reparation for damage caused,” he said.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, called water companies to a meeting on Thursday following a damning report on their performance by the Environment Agency.
The Environment Agency said: “[We] take this matter extremely seriously. We are pursuing our own criminal investigation into Southern Water due to suspected permit breaches at a number of its sites.”
Southern Water said it could not reveal whether disciplinary action had been, or was being taken, against any former or present employee.
The company said: “Following a period of ambitious transformation, the business is substantially different and barely resembles the company it was two years ago. A third of senior management have since moved on; the executive team is 60% different and the board is considerably strengthened.”
The company said it was cooperating with the Environment Agency investigation.