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Rivers: Sewage

Question for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

UIN 184560, tabled on 20 April 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what recent discussions he has had with water companies on the discharging of raw sewage into English rivers.

Answered on

26 April 2021

Tackling the harm caused by sewer overflows is a top priority for this department.

To achieve this, the new Storm Overflows Taskforce - bringing together Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental NGOs - has agreed to set a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. The Taskforce is meeting regularly and working on plans to start making progress towards that goal, and they have commissioned research to gather evidence on the costs, benefits and feasibility of different options.

We are also introducing new duties that will require the Government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to report progress to Parliament on implementing that plan. We are also introducing duties requiring water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis. These legally binding obligations on water companies and Government will reduce pollution in rivers, protecting wildlife and public health.

The Environment Secretary and the Environment Agency Chair have met with underperforming water companies to discuss how Government and industry can work together to drive better environmental performance. The Environment Secretary has set out clear expectations for water companies to improve their environmental performance in the future. I have also met water company CEOs and made clear that the volume of sewage discharged into rivers and other waterways in extreme weather must be reduced.

Water companies are committed in the five-year business planning period (2020-25) to a significant programme of improvements to the monitoring and management of storm overflows at a cost of around £1.1 billion. This investment includes undertaking 800 investigations and 798 improvement schemes to provide environmental improvements by reducing spills from frequently spilling overflows.

With regards to penalties and enforcement, the Environment Agency currently regulates water companies in their operation of storm overflows to ensure they only discharge under strict permitted conditions. Where discharges occur outside of these conditions, the Environment Agency investigates and takes appropriate action, which includes enforcement action if necessary.

Environment Agency action has resulted in 48 prosecutions against water companies in the last six years, securing fines of £35 million. £10.4 million has also been donated to environmental and wildlife trusts organisations in the same period through enforcement undertakings, a voluntary agreement which will include a donation to environmental charities to restore any harm done. The Environment Agency will continue to take enforcement action against water companies which fail to uphold the law or cause serious environmental harm.

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