Environment Agency InvestigationsFall by 30%Amid Sewage Crisis
Government cuts have hamstrung the regulator at exactly the wrong moment, reports Andrew Kersley
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The number of investigations launched by the Environment Agency has dropped by 30% between 2015 and 2020, even as the crisis in raw sewage dumping hit breaking point, Byline Times can reveal.
Some 11,436 incidents were officially logged by the regulatory body tasked with stopping pollution and protecting the natural environment in England and Wales in 2015, but by 2020 that figure had dropped 8,088, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
The FOI results also revealed that the share of those total cases where “no further action” was taken by the agency has shot up from around 10% to 15% in that same time.
One activist group warned that the figured showed there was a “clear lack of regard for sewage pollution incidents.”
Since 2010, the Environment Agency has been on the end of dramatic cuts to its budget from the Government, slashed by nearly two-thirds from £120 million to just £48 million. While serving as Environment Secretary from 2014 to 2016, Liz Truss oversaw £24 million in cuts on environmental protection, including surveillance of water companies to prevent the dumping of raw sewage.
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The reduction in Environment Agency cases comes as a worsening raw sewage dumping crisis in British rivers by the country’s privatised water companies.
In 2020, there were 403,171 raw sewage dumps into England’s rivers and seas, or more than three million hours of spillages. That figure was a 37% increase on 2019. Those figures only slightly dropped in 2021 to around 375,000 untreated sewage discharges, for a combined total of more than 2.7 million hours. From 2019 to 2021, the total was 6 million hours.
Now, just 14% of UK rivers are judged to be of good ecological standard. Last week, The Times revealed that the number of audit inspections conducted by the Environment Agency of water companies’ ‘self-reporting’ of sewage dumping figures dropped by more than half between 2019 and 2020.
While those figures eventually increased at the end of the pandemic, the new data obtained by Byline Times is unlikely to be related to the COVID crisis. Indeed, the number of incidents logged by the Environment Agency actually hit an all time low in 2017/18, when just 7,528 were recorded.
Byline Times has previously uncovered that the UK’s water companies have paid a total of £405 million in penalties for environmental, water service, workplace health and safety, and labour violations since 2010.
Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy for Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Devastating under-investment is systemic across our water industry, from the Government squeezing the regulator to water companies letting our infrastructure fall into disrepair, leading to the sewage scandal we’re all now confronted with.
“We know that Environment Agency staff were blatantly told to ignore ‘low-impact’ pollution events, demonstrating a clear lack of regard for sewage pollution incidents despite the huge damage they cause to our ecosystems and to human health.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said that it “receives thousands of incident reports every year ranging from pollution to coastal erosion and flooding. We assess and record every incident and we will always attend if there is any significant risk to people or the environment.
“All information we receive is used to shape regulatory interventions where they are needed most and like every public organisation, given finite resources we will always focus our efforts on the greatest threats to the environment.
“We recently requested detailed data from over 2,200 wastewater treatment works as part of the biggest investigation we have ever undertaken into potential permit breaches – and where there is evidence of non-compliance we will not hesitate to pursue the water companies concerned and take appropriate action.”