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Thames Water fined more than £3m over sewage spill that turned rivers black near Gatwick Airport | UK News

Thames Water have been fined more than £3m after admitting polluting rivers.

The company, which supplies one in four people in Britain with water, had pleaded guilty to four charges relating to illegally discharging waste.

It was fined £3.3m at Lewes Crown Court on Tuesday.

The court heard “millions of litres” of undiluted sewage was pumped into the Gatwick Stream and River Mole between Crawley in West Sussex and Horley in Surrey on 11 October, 2017.

The hearing was told that the spill turned the water “black” and killed more than 1,000 fish.

More than 1,000 fish died as a result of sewage in rivers
More than 1,000 fish died as a result of sewage in rivers

Judge Christine Laing KC said that she believed the firm had shown a “deliberate attempt” to mislead the Environment Agency over the incident, by omitting water readings and submitting a report to the regulator denying responsibility.

The company has previously been fined £32.4m for pollution incidents in the Thames Valley and south-west London between 2017 and 2021.

During the first day of the hearing on Monday, the court heard how a storm pump at Crawley Sewage Treatment Works site was unexpectedly diverting sewage to its storm tank for 21 hours and went “unnoticed”.

Prosecutor Sailesh Mehta estimated untreated sewage was spilling into the river for six and a half hours after no alarm was raised.

When an alarm was raised the lead technician was unreachable as they were waiting for a new mobile phone.

Read more:
Why is sewage pumped into rivers and the sea?

What’s gone wrong at Thames Water?
Thames Water customers told ‘nothing’ will happen with customers’ bills
Thames Water: ‘Contingency plans are in place’

Eyewitness accounts read in court said how they saw the river turn “black” and “grey”, with “huge numbers of dead fish” visible in the water.

Nearly 1,400 dead fish were recovered from the rivers by the Environment Agency following the incident.

Lisa Roberts KC, representing Thames Water, said the firm expresses its “unreserved and sincere apology” for the incident, adding: “Put bluntly, it shouldn’t have happened and Thames deeply regrets the event.”

More than 1,000 fish died as a result of sewage in rivers

She said the company rejects that previous issues were to blame for the spillage, putting it down to a “faulty switch” in the storm pump which meant the incident could not have been predicted.

A £33m plan to improve the Crawley site has been put in place since the incident, according to Ms Roberts, with aims to complete it by the end of March 2025.

New systems have also been rolled out across other Thames Water sites to prevent such incidents happening again.

The fine comes as the company faces concerns over its future amid a mounting £14bn debt.

Thames Water’s chief executive Sarah Bentley stepped down with immediate effect last week after she gave up her bonus due to the company’s environmental performance.

In 2021, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for nearly 7,000 incidents of illegal discharge of sewage across Hampshire, Kent and Sussex.

Be ‘less squeamish’ about drinking reprocessed sewage water, environment chief says | UK News

Britons should be “less squeamish” about drinking reprocessed sewage water, and stop treating the resource as a “free good”, the head of the Environment Agency has said.

It comes as water companies have been accused of dumping sewage into rivers and the sea over the last few weeks, triggering warnings about contaminated water.

There have been growing calls to strip water company bosses of their multimillion-pound bonuses after outrage at how much sewage is being pumped into the sea.

Writing in The Sunday Times, Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, said that people in the UK should be “less squeamish” when it comes to drinking water that has previously been mixed with sewage, as water companies plan to recycle water directly from flushed toilets.

Sir James says this type of water is “perfectly safe and healthy, but not something many people fancy”.

He added we should “change the way they think about water”, and “treat it as a precious resource, not a free good”.

“We need to remember where it comes from: when we turn on the tap, what comes out started in a river, lake, or aquifer,” he wrote.

“The more we take, the more we drain those sources and put stress on nature and wildlife.

“If we are going to get there, we are all going to have to think differently. Some of these measures will be unpopular, so future governments will need to show political will.”

Sir James’s comments come as a Channel 4 News investigation found more than 870 water pipes in the UK could be dumping sewage without permits.

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Sewage alerts keep swimmers away

More than 200 of those have been confirmed to be in use by water companies, the broadcaster said.

The Environment Agency told the programme: “Water companies have rightly been condemned for allowing far too many sewage spills, and we are holding the industry to account on an unprecedented scale.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs added: “We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows. We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable, and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.

“This is on top of ambitious action we have already taken, including setting targets to improve water quality which will act as a powerful tool to deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows.”

Huge increase in raw sewage released into UK waterways and sea, data reveals | Climate News

Water companies have pumped raw sewage into Britain’s seas and rivers for more than nine million hours since 2016, new data suggests.

The figure is an increase of 2,553% over five years, according to the Labour Party’s analysis of Environment Agency (EA) data, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Between 2016 and 2021 water companies discharged sewage into waterways and the sea for a total of 9,427,355 hours, the equivalent of 1,076 years.

It comes as the EA issued warnings to holidaymakers to avoid dozens of beaches across England and Wales this week.

Untreated sewage water was spotted pouring into the sea near Bexhill, East Sussex on Wednesday.

On Saturday, the red flags were removed, meaning the water was officially deemed safe to bathe in.

The beach, however, was near-deserted.

Bexhill-on-sea resident Rachel Streeter
Bexhill-on-Sea resident Rachel Streeter

‘Filthy, murky, stinks’

Residents of Bexhill told Sky News they find what they describe as “regular sewage dumps” along the coast “devastating”.

Rachel Streeter moved to Bexhill-on-Sea in 2007 to enjoy wild swimming and the beach.

She described seeing faeces floating in the water on swims.

“It’s filthy, murky, and it stinks. Flies actually fly above the surface of the water as well as the sewage. It’s quite obvious,” she said.

Rachel says her friends and family have all become sick after swimming.

Her 79-year-old mother went for a swim last week and fell ill with “a severe bacterial infection”.

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Businesses say they are being affected by it too.

Cliff Meadon, who runs canoeing and kayaking business Epic Life, and says he has lost “thousands” over the last two years due to sewage dumps.

“We’ve had to cancel sessions. We’ve been on the water with groups when we’ve had to come in as the sewage comes out. We’ve seen it,” he said.

In Hastings people were advised not to swim due to a pollution risk this week.

Beaches in Normans Bay as well as Bexhill were closed but have now reopened.


‘Heavily diluted’

The sewage dumps were blamed on heavy rainfall.

A spokesperson for Southern Water said: “This week’s heavy rain has fallen on to dry ground that can’t absorb surface run-off, meaning that more rain than usual has overwhelmed our network.

“This led to some overflows – which are used to protect homes, schools, businesses and hospitals from flooding – spilling excess water into the sea.

“These discharges are heavily diluted.

“We are dedicated to significantly reducing storm overflows and are running innovative pilot schemes across the region to reduce the amount of rainfall entering our combined sewers by 2030.”

The Environment Agency declined to comment.

Southern Water was fined £90 million last year for widespread pollution after pleading guilty to more than 6,000 unpermitted sewage discharges.

The discharges were carried out between 2010 and 2015.

Southern argued the sewage dumping had not been deliberate, and after the case said the company was committed to transformation, transparency and cultural change.