Corner of Cornwall has some of worst river and sewage leak pollution

The rivers in North Cornwall are among the most polluted ones in Cornwall when it comes to sewage overflow incidents
The rivers in North Cornwall are among the most polluted ones in Cornwall when it comes to sewage overflow incidents -Credit:Emily Whitfield-Wicks/PA Wire

Rivers in north Cornwall are among the most polluted ones in the county, new figures have revealed. The Rivers Trust's sewage discharge data shows that the Rivers Inny and Allen have some of the highest amount of sewage discharges in the whole of Cornwall.

The figures also reveal that three of the worst performing waste water treatment works in the county are in north Cornwall. Beals Mill treatment works near Treburley discharged untreated sewage and storm overflows into the River Inney for a total of 5,051 hours – that is the equivalent of 210 continuous days – and is one of the worst performing outfalls nationally.

Meanwhile the Delabole Waste Water Treatment Works, which discharges into the River Allen – a river with a nationally important Special Area of Conservation designation – was polluted for 3,352 hours (that equates to 140 days) and also discharged in Altarnun for 2,899 hours (which equivalent to 120 days).

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The Liberal Democrats, who are is hoping to wrestle the North Cornwall seat from Conservative MP Scott Mann at the next general election, have accused the government of letting utility company South West Water "get away with it".

The party said that despite the government's claims that it has a plan to address this issue – it is in fact getting worse, with spills doubling in 2023 over the previous year. South West Water (SWW) has blamed the unusual amount of rain for the increased number of sewage pollution incidents.

It said storm overflow activity - drains combining household sewage and surface run-off which are allowed to be opened when heavy rain threatens to see sewage back up into homes - will always be affected by rainfall, as they were in the drier year of 2022. But 2023 was the fifth wettest year since records began for the South West. SWW also said that its reporting is more stringent than in other areas of the country which is why more spills are recorded.

North Cornwall Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate Ben Maguire said that water companies have pumped sewage into our rivers and seas more than 1 million times over the past three years. He said that the Liberal Democrats are calling for a new Blue Flag status to protect rivers from pollution.

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Mr Maguire added: "The Conservatives are letting South West Water get away with this scandalous record and they want taxpayers to pay to fix the problem. Water companies need to clean up their own mess and stop dumping sewage in our water.

"It's time for a sewage tax on £2.2 billion water company annual profits, a ban on water company executive bonuses, and it's time for the Government to start dealing with this issue properly.

"Under our proposals, rivers could be designated with the special status to protect them from pollution, including water companies discharging sewage into them. This would also give river swimmers the knowledge that certain environmental standards were being met, meaning they could swim in them without fear of getting sick. Water companies that continue to dump their sewage into Blue Flag rivers would face punitive fines."

Lib Dem councillor Dominic Fairman, who represents Delabole on Cornwall Council added: "The issue at Delabole is a simple one of underinvestment over many years.

"While South West Water have continued to reward shareholders and executives, their solution to the growing needs of the village for waste water infrastructure has been to simply use the river as an open sewer. We are now unable to bring forward any affordable housing for the next generation due to the excess phosphates in the River Allen."

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Scott Mann, the Conservative MP for North Cornwall said it is not true the Tory government has done nothing about the pollution issue. Only in February, in a post on his own website did he say that it is thanks to the current government that there is greater reporting of pollution incidents.

He wrote: "The allegation that Conservative MPs have “voted to dump sewage onto beaches” is false. Whilst I agree that the amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers and seas is unacceptable, this is the first Government to set out expectations that water companies must take steps to reduce storm overflows significantly. This instruction will now be put on an enhanced legal footing.

"It is only because of the increased monitoring of storm overflows – directed by this Government – that we know how bad the problem really is. Since 2016 the number of outflows monitored has increased from 6% to 90%. That is one of the main reasons why the numbers of incidents are ‘increasing’. Furthermore, since 2008 the percentage of bathing waters rated as excellent has increased from 53% to 72%."

He added: "The measures supported by opposition MPs would not have banned sewage overflows, as some falsely claim. It is estimated that the proposals would have cost £12,000 - £21,000 per household. Conservative MPs have voted to amend plans, not block them. We removed the sections that would have meant massive bills for families across the UK. These votes are cynical party politics at its worst, not a serious debate about solving the problem.

"I understand how emotive and important a subject this is. I am committed to seeing the end of combined sewer discharges over time and to placing the obligation for dealing with the issue squarely on the water companies – not Cornish taxpayers.

South West Water said it has an action plan for the sites with the highest spills. The company said the following work is already underway:

  • Hatherleigh: Trebling the storage at this location reducing spills at this location by 90%.

  • Chittleham Holt: A reduction of spills by 50% in January and February this year already.

  • There are 20 more storage sites getting ready from March 2024.

A spokesperson for SWW said: "We care about our 860m of coastline, our regions 100% bathing water quality, which we have successfully maintained for three consecutive years and protecting the environment now and in the future. We were one of the first water companies to have all our storm overflows monitored meaning we know exactly what is happening, when and where, allowing us to target investment and make changes where it matters most.

"We are serious about tackling storm overflows and change of this scale takes time, ambition, and increased investment – and that is why we are investing £850m in our region over two years. The increase in the storm overflow spills this year can be accounted for by the amount of named storms and weather warnings in 2023. It’s clear we need to redesign our systems, which we are already doing.

"We will also be the first water company to meet the Government target of less than 10 spills per overflow, per year – a decade ahead of target."