An Environment Agency report on the environmental performance of England’s nine water and sewerage companies has concluded Southern Water requires improvement with pollution incidents “consistently unacceptable.”
Since 2011 the EA has used the Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA), which rates each company in England from 1 star to 4 star, for performance on environmental commitments such as pollution incidents and treatment work compliance. Where these commitments are not achieved, companies will face underperformance penalties, with Ofwat having new powers to levy fines from 2020.
The report shows:
Southern Water and South West Water were rated as 2 star (requiring improvement)
Anglian Water and Thames Water were rated as 3 star (good)
Five companies (Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water) achieved 4 stars, although certain improvements are still required
2015-2020 expectations, including full compliance for waste water discharge permits and a 50% reduction in serious pollution incidents compared with 2012, have not been met
Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Wessex Water sustained the highest level of performance for most of the last five years
The Environment Agency says a number of companies are still failing to live up to their responsibilities to regulators, their customers and the environment.
Serious pollution incidents declined for the second year in a row to the lowest number ever – but while there were 285 fewer total pollution incidents than in 2019, it was still the second highest number of total incidents since 2015.
The report says: “Southern Water and South West Water both performed significantly below target for this metric, Southern Water for the second year in a row and South West Water for the tenth year in the row. Both companies’ performances have been consistently unacceptable. Over half of serious incidents were also due to Anglian Water and Thames Water.”
The results come the week after Southern Water was sentenced to pay a record-breaking £90m fine after pleading guilty in court to 6971 unpermitted pollution discharges.
The successful Environment Agency investigation was the biggest the regulator has ever conducted, making clear that polluters will be made to pay for damage to the environment.
Environment Agency Chair Emma Howard Boyd said: ”Over half the water sector is now achieving the highest industry rating, showing that clear targets and regulatory focus combined with investment in the environment delivers change in the water sector.
“But, some companies are still failing in their duty to the environment and there remains a tendency to reach for excuses rather than grasp the nettle. As last week’s £90m fine for Southern Water showed, environmental laws must not be undermined.”
Sewage was released across the south coast from 16 Wastewater treatment works and one sewer overflow between 2010-2015.
Southern Water entered guilty pleas to all the offences during a previous hearing, admitting 6,971 illegal spills from sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex over five years.
At the sentencing, His Honour Mr Justice Johnson said the water company “showed a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment” as well as human health, fisheries and other coastal businesses.
Prosecution was brought under the Water Resources Act and the Environmental Permitting Regulations after the company discharged huge volumes of raw sewage into the water because it was cheaper than treating it, the hearing at Canterbury Crown Court was told.
The first release resulted in advice against bathing at 11 Thanet beaches which was in force for seven days and prompted a public protest march.
And in another case, in 2019, Southern Water agreed to pay £126million in penalties and rebate payments to customers following serious failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites and for deliberately misreporting its performance during 2010-2017.
In the course of a large-scale investigation into the water company, Ofwat found that Southern Water failed to operate a number of wastewater treatments works properly, including not making the necessary investment which led to equipment failures and spills of wastewater into the environment.
Ofwat also found that Southern Water staff manipulated the wastewater sampling process which resulted in misreporting information about the performance of a number of sewage treatment sites. This meant the company avoided penalties under Ofwat’s incentive regime.
The £126m package meant Southern Water paid a rebate of £123m to customers through their bills and a fine of £3m.
The rebate included £91m in penalties Southern Water had avoided and a further £32m of payments as recognition of their serious failures.
Following the incident Southern Water appointed a new chief executive and made substantial changes to the company’s management team.
In light of the annual report results, Environment Secretary George Eustice and Environment Minister Rebecca Pow will be meeting Southern Water and South West Water respectively in the coming months.
Following enforcement action taken by Ofwat on Southern Water in 2018, the company has a package of undertakings to deliver, including steps to improve investment and performance at its wastewater treatment works and to increase transparency for customers about its environmental performance.
Following last week’s court case Southern Water chief executive Ian McAulay said: “I am deeply sorry for the historic incidents which have led to today’s sentencing and fine. I know that the people who rely on us to be custodians of the precious environment in southern England must be able to trust us. What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.
“We have heard what the judge has said and will reflect closely on the sentence and his remarks. He has rightly put the environment front and centre which is what matters to all of us.
“These events happened between 2010 and 2015. I joined Southern Water in 2017 and am passionately committed to the environment. We have changed the way we operate. My expectation is that Southern Water is fully transparent and operates in the right way. We continue to transform across the areas of risk and compliance, measurement and self-reporting. We have made much progress and are continuing to invest to protect the environment and deliver our services safely and at a fair price for our customers.”