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Profit-motivated pollution is the water sector’s dirty secret

On what planet does the boss of a water company, with an appalling record of polluting rivers and seas with raw human sewage, get paid more than £1m in salary and bonuses?

On Planet Shitshow, where we all now reside, that’s where. Until relatively recently we were unaware the water industry had chosen to use rivers, lakes and beaches as open sewers rather than invest in enough new tanks and pipes to cope with our swelling volumes of effluent.

But the sector’s dirty secret is out and the volume of raw sewage entering our waters is breathtaking in more ways than one. If you believe the industry’s own data, they dumped raw sewage 372,444 times last year, for more than 2.6 million hours. That’s equivalent to 297 YEARS! But hold those gasps, this is just the tip of the shitberg – the actual figure is much worse than this because not all spills get reported, oh and because the sector has, in the face of unignorable evidence from campaign groups, admitted that much of the dumping it’s doing is probably a little bit illegal.

That confession woke regulators the Environment Agency and Ofwat from their deep slumber and they launched a long overdue investigation.

Poisoning rivers with sewage is tempting for water companies because it’s so much cheaper than investing in infrastructure

Poisoning rivers with shit is tempting for water companies because it’s so much cheaper than investing in infrastructure that would put an end to sewage dumping. Dodging such investment has enabled them to pay their shareholders and directors blisteringly large sums of money, while loading the companies with debt. If you put this to the firms, they will clutch their pearls and insist in unison that they’ve invested large sums of money over the years.

“We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously,” they will harmonise from a well-worn hymn sheet.

“Our sewerage system was built in the Victorian times,” they will shrug, hoping you’ll forget that the industry was privatised back in 1989 with the explicit purpose of attracting private cash to update old infrastructure.

You could argue that – but the sector has therefore overseen more than three decades of underinvestment. It sometimes blames Ofwat for capping the amount of money they’re allowed to spend. The regulator tries to keep a check on spending so that water bills aren’t pushed up; but while it has kept bills relatively low, the environment has paid a hefty price. Just ask a salmon if you don’t believe me, although you’d be hard pushed to find one since populations have crashed to what the Environment Agency describes as “crisis point”.

Sewage and waste pollution by water companies, 2020
Total number of incidents per 10,000km2. Source: Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales

Denial over the state of England’s rivers, none of which meets legal standards for overall good health, is astonishing. Some water companies, and even the bosses of the Environment Agency, have proclaimed rivers to be “better than at any time since the Industrial Revolution”.

There may be less heavy metal pollution sprayed around than in the nineteenth century, but there are growing numbers of newer chemicals seeping into our waters, many un-monitored, which means their contamination isn’t measured. In fact, the claim of “healthy rivers” is so daft that it compelled a bunch of scientists to publish a paper debunking it:
“As a society we now use more chemicals than ever before and many of these will end up in our rivers. The impacts of these chemicals are more subtle and will occur over a prolonged period of time but could be playing an important role in the loss of biodiversity in our rivers,” concluded the report, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

In the face of intense media attention and public outrage, the government has introduced new rules to force the sector to reduce sewage dumping, but there is little in the way of quantifiable targets. For their part, the water companies have made promises to do better. However, if they think the spotlight has moved on, they’re wrong.

An excoriating report by the Environment Agency published on 22 July stated, apparently without irony, that the water sector’s environmental performance last year was “the worst for at least a decade”.

The agency took a tough stance, acting as if this wasn’t in part the result of its own failure to regulate the industry and protect rivers, proving what a shabby job it had made of enforcing existing rules.

“This is appalling! Water firm bosses should be thrown into jail and flogged!” the agency nearly said, bouncing dead cat after dead cat onto the table.

Hilariously, the next day it emerged that Thames Water boss Sarah Bentley, who takes home a cool £2m a year, also pocketed a £727,000 windfall, and two days later it was reported that Anglian Water boss Peter Simpson received a chunky £1.3m pay packet that included a £337,651 bonus.

Are these patsy payments? Are they told that if they take the flak, they’ll be richly rewarded by the nebulous supranational investment-fund firms that own many of the water companies?

Meanwhile, swimmers and surfers report being bent double with sickness after spending time in the water; and fish and other aquatic creatures, as well as the birds that feed on them, are declining.

A fisherman on the River Severn, where sanitary towels probably outnumber salmon, recently remarked to me: “Water company bosses are just taking the coin, I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

I do. In big, comfortable beds in large, desirable houses.

Rachel Salvidge is an environmental journalist and deputy editor of the environmental policy magazine the ENDS Report. She regularly writes for the Guardian and hosts the fortnightly podcast the Eco Chamber. Her work covers everything from water and air pollution to nature, land use, waste and resources, chemicals, energy and climate

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August 2022, Main Features

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