Water companies in England were responsible for their worst levels of environmental pollution in five years in 2019, leading to condemnation from ministers and the Environment Agency.
In its annual assessment of the nine privatised water and sewerage companies, Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the EA, said their performance continued to be unacceptable. More investment was needed by several of the companies wich were failing to protect the environment, she said.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, and Howard Boyd are summoning the worst performing firms – South West Water, Anglian, Northumbrian and Southern – to a meeting to demand they “step up” and do better.
But Nick Measham, of Salmon and Trout Conservation, said it was time for a review into how the industry was run.
“This is utterly unacceptable,” said Measham. “The current water industry setup is not working. The companies are being run to maximise returns to their mostly private equity owners with the environment taking second place. A regulatory reset to ensure our rivers get the protection they deserve is essential if government aims for water are to [be] anything [other than] lame platitudes.”
The damning assessment of the way water companies treat the environment comes after the poor state of rivers in England was revealed last month. No river in England was found to be in a good overall state, amid concerns over the scale of sewage discharges and agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system.
The EA performance assessment published on Friday revealed there were 2,204 “pollution events” last year – the highest number since 2014 – marking the worst record for environmental pollution from the water industry for five years. Southern Water was responsible for 458 pollution incidents, nearly double its 2018 total.
Serious pollution events that have a major impact on rivers or seas by the water companies have hardly improved, the report says. In 2019, there were 52 category 1 events – the most serious – compared with 56 in 2018, and 48 serious pollution incidents took place at sewerage facilities, more than half of which were from Anglian and Thames Water assets.
Only Severn Trent and Wessex Water achieved the highest level of performance, with 4 star ratings from the EA.
Howard Boyd said: “We expect much more. This includes developing, publishing and implementing specific plans by the end of this year to reduce pollution incidents. We will closely follow the delivery of these plans and will apply tough regulation to ensure companies stick by them.”
Southern Water became the first company to be given a 1 star (poor) rating since 2015, and was one of four companies rated as poor or requiring improvement. It was fined a record £126m last year over “shocking” failures at the company’s sewage treatment sites that polluted rivers and beaches in southern England.
Eustice said: “Water companies have a responsibility to act as custodians of the environment and this report for 2019 shows that some are failing to take their obligations seriously. That is not good enough. Certain water companies must step up and do better, which is why I will be meeting those who are falling short of our expectations to discuss how we can work together to drive better performance.”
Howard Boyd defended the action taken by her agency against companies that continued to pollute the environment. In the last five years, she said, the agency had brought 44 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £34m. Water companies are being told to implement plans to reduce pollution incidents by the end of the year, as part of an action plan to tackle their unacceptable performance.
She pointed to a new storm overflow task force to tackle the scale of raw sewage pollution released by water companies into rivers. The task force was set up after the Guardian revealed that water companies discharged raw sewage from storm overflows more than 200,000 times in 2019.
The five-year high for environmental pollution by the water industry comes as analysis shows that the sector has paid out £57bn in dividends since it was privatised 30 years ago.
Dave Tickner, chief adviser on freshwater science at WWF-UK, said: “Our own prime minister told the UN it is time to turn words into action to address loss of nature. To do that our government must provide more resources for the Environment Agency so it can do the job the public expects.
“It should also demand that the Agency uses these resources to clamp down on polluters. In addition, Ofwat should have a duty, passed on to water companies, to protect river health.”
Philip Dunne, the chair of the environmental audit committee, said: “Today’s report ... offers a bleak picture of the state of UK water and sewerage companies, and it is deeply alarming that four out of the nine companies assessed require improvement. There seems to be a level of complacency resulting in terribly poor performance. All water companies must crack down on pollution which can be deeply damaging to the natural environment and human health.”