Jail bosses of polluting water companies, environment watchdog says

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Water polluters  should face hasher fines, the EA has urged  (Getty Images)
Water polluters should face hasher fines, the EA has urged (Getty Images)

The UK’s environment watchdog is calling for massive fines and directors of polluting companies to be jailed after an “appalling” performance by England’s nine water and sewerage companies.

The Environment Agency is urging Courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents and prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents.

The agency’s annual report shows that in 2021 the performance of the companies fell to the lowest level ever seen, adding: “Despite continuing enforcement action against those breaching environmental laws, water companies remain undeterred by the penalties currently being issued by the courts”.

Southern Water and South West Water were given just a one-star rating out of four, while four companies were rated only two stars – meaning they require significant improvement.

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: “It’s appalling that water companies’ performance on pollution has hit a new low. Water quality won’t improve until water companies get a grip on their operational performance. For years people have seen executives and investors handsomely rewarded while the environment pays the price.

“Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary.

“We need courts to impose much higher fines. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.”

Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities performed more positively and maintained four stars.

The report also shows seven water companies had 62 serious incidents in 2021 – the highest since 2013 – and there has also been no overall improvement of compliance with conditions for discharging treated wastewater for several years.

Susan Davy, Southern Water’s Director of Quality and Environment, said: “Our performance last year was not good enough – we are committed to doing better for our customers.

“We know we have a long way to go, however new investment and new ways of working, including major upgrades to our control centre and pumping stations, and the introduction of tens of thousands of digital monitors across our network, are already making a difference and delivering positive change.”

“I am deeply disappointed to receive this assessment for 2021, and this is not where we want to be.

“I want to reassure our customers that the investments and changes we are already making across our network are delivering real results, including a one-third reduction in pollution incidents last year to the lowest number in 10 years.

“One pollution is one too many, and that’s why we are committed to bringing this down further year on year by strengthening our round-the-clock response, increasing resourcing levels by 25%, and investing £330 million over the next three years in our wastewater network.

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