A sewer outfall release into the sea off Margate 10 days after a waste release at Foreness pumping station resulted in advice being issued not to enter the water at 11 Thanet beaches and bays is being investigated by the Environment Agency.
The release was made on June 27 and highlighted through a red alert icon on Southern Water’s Beachbuoy page which gives near real-time details of storm and waste water releases.
The second release from combined sewer outfalls (CSO) was made via the long sea outfall which is 1.9km offshore. When storms and heavy rainfall cause flows to arrive more quickly than they can be collected, stormwater is diverted to tanks but if the storage tanks become full, then it is filtered through screens and diverted for release through pipes, known as outfalls.
This method is used to stop flooding in homes, gardens, streets, highways and open spaces with diluted but untreated sewage from manholes, drains and toilets.
The waste releases are regulated and policed by the Environment Agency through the issue of Discharge Consents. It means Southern Water has a permit to release screened waste (removing solids) mixed with large amounts of water during a CSO and this is released either 600m or 2km out to sea.
However, Environment Agency officers are currently investigating whether the latest discharge was in line with the site permit and what exactly was released.
Margate district councillor and Shadow Cabinet for Finance at TDC, Rob Yates received the investigation update after making further enquiries about what has been released into Thanet waters, when and why.
He says repeated waste releases are unacceptable and a number of actions must be taken – including assessment of whether a new, fit for purpose pumping station needs to be built at Foreness.
He said: “The saga over Southern Water dumping waste into the sea is not over. On top of the release of sewage on June 17, there has been an additional release of wastewater on June 27 that is currently under investigation by the Environment Agency for potentially breaching their permit
“I do believe that the water is currently safe to swim in, and have recently swum at Walpole Bay lido, but these repeated events are totally unacceptable.
“On top of this, Southern Water has made the claim process for local businesses incredibly bureaucratic, including asking businesses for monthly breakdown of costs for consumables and cleaning products. This is outrageous and not what should be expected following the serious environmental incident and its impact on business revenue.
“In my role as Shadow Cabinet member for Finance, I have already informed the Council’s Section 151 officer about this, and they have passed this information onto the CEO of Southern Water who has agreed to follow up on it, but I won’t hold my breath.”
Cllr Yates says the Environment Agency website should include CSO events when they give their guidance on bathing, especially as Southern Water recommends no swimming for 24 hours following these outfalls. He suggests Thanet council may decide they also want to publicise no swimming events for 24 hours after a CSO.
He added: “TDC need to be involved in the ongoing Environment Agency investigation into whether the CSO release on June 27 complied with (Southern Water’s) permit. Given that heavy rainfall events are due to increase because of man-made climate change, work should be done to assess whether a new, fit for purpose pumping station needs to be built to deal with these increasing events and stop pollution of the sea.”
The Environment Agency response to Cllr Yates says: “On Sunday 27 June, Southern Water’s Beachbuoy website recorded a discharge from the Margate waste water pumping station. The site has a permit to make discharges to sea during times of heavy rainfall, however our officers are investigating whether the discharge on Sunday, June 27 was compliant with its permit. Current information suggests that the discharge would not have had a significant impact on bathing water quality.
“We are taking this incident very seriously and will be investigating this alongside the incident which occurred on June 17. As this is an ongoing investigation we cannot comment further at this time.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson added: “Water companies have a legal duty to avoid pollution, acting quickly to reduce any damage that happens as a result of their activities.
“The Environment Agency is investigating the release of sewage from Southern Water’s Foreness pumping station on 16/17 June and 27 June.
“Our specialist officers used their expert knowledge of water quality to support Thanet District Council and Southern Water throughout the incident. This included the council’s decision to re-open the beaches on 23 June following an extensive clean-up.
“Anyone who suspects pollution in our rivers or seas is asked to call us on 0800 80 70 60.”
A Southern Water spokesperson said: “The release was screened and heavily diluted and was done to prevent internal flooding to local properties. We have informed the Environment Agency as a matter of routine.
“We continue to liaise with Thanet District Council. There are no live bathing water advisories from either Thanet District Council or the Environment Agency; The Environment Agency regularly update their Swimfo site with the latest details on water quality at designated bathing water sites in England.
“Our Beachbuoy bathing water portal is in place to be open and transparent about releases from our CSOs. We extended this service earlier this year, to include all 83 bathing waters and two recreational harbours in our region.
“This was not an emergency release but part of the way combined sewers are designed to work to protect local properties from internal flooding during heavy rainfall.
“We know society’s expectations and opinions about the use of Combined Sewer Outfalls (CSOs) have significantly changed in recent years. There’s growing openness and transparency about wastewater releases, along with a significant and growing demand from the public for politicians, regulators, water companies and others to take action.”
Southern Water CEO Ian McAulay previously said investment is being made. He said: “We have invested significantly in making improvements to reduce the risk of future incidents occurring at Margate Pumping Station. We know the local community has been badly affected in the past and to reduce the risks we have invested £10m in the last decade. Another £5.5m will be invested in the site by 2025.”
The day after the sewer pipe release Walpole Bay tidal pool was drained following reports of concern from residents about pollution.
The drainage work was carried out by Thanet council and paid for by Southern Water,
A Thanet council spokesperson said: “Southern Water procured the work to drain Walpole Tidal Pool under the supervision of our engineers in order to check for any debris. No trace of any debris has been found.”
It is understood a broken valve was found and repaired.
Wastewater from Foreness pumping station on June 17 was released via the emergency outfall into Palm Bay and Margate Sands. during the storm on June 16/17. It resulted in advice being issued to stay out of the water at 11 Thanet beaches and prompted a large public protest march to the Southern Water pumping site.
The advice was lifted on June 23. The Environment Agency opened an investigation into the cause of the “unscreened, untreated sewage” discharge which is also still ongoing.
Southern Water is due to be sentenced at Canterbury Crown Court from July 6-9 for the misuse of storm tanks at 17 of its sites between 2010 and 2015.