‘Frankly pathetic’: Water pollution lacks full-time team to tackle sewage crisis

Water pollution
Water pollution

The Environment Agency (EA) has no dedicated team dealing with water pollution full-time, despite the sewage crisis in England’s rivers, The Telegraph can reveal.

The regulator has 549 staff who work on water issues across two different teams, some of whom spend up to a third of their time on water pollution.

The figures came in response to a parliamentary question from the Liberal Democrats to the agency.

The agency said its land and water team, which has 422 full-time staff, spends up to 30 per cent of its time on water pollution.

The number of people on the team has increased by 58 since 2015, when the scale of sewage pollution became widely known.

Its groundwater and contaminated land team of 127, which includes 50 fewer people since 2015, spends up to three per cent of its time on water issues.

The EA has been criticised over its response to pollution in England’s rivers, with only 14 per cent classed as having good ecological status.

Campaigners argue that the agency is not actively investigating sewage flows and failing to hold the water and agriculture sectors to account.

Since 2009, it has operated a “self-monitoring system” under which water companies are expected to inform the EA of any pollution breaches.

Under a new system rolled out in 2021 as part of a £1 million strategic review, river sites that the EA monitors are randomly computer-generated, instead of comprehensively monitored, and mostly checked during officer hours - raising concerns that pollution is being missed.

'This simply isn't good enough'

Commenting on the staffing data, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman, said: “This simply isn’t good enough. Water companies are committing an environmental scandal and the Government appears powerless to stop them.

“It is frankly pathetic that one of the teams tasked with taking on the water companies spends just three per cent of its time on the problem. What on earth is that supposed to achieve?

“Ministers are tone-deaf on the sewage crisis. They should be throwing the kitchen sink at this. Instead, they appear to be sitting on their hands and starving the Environment Agency of resources.

“The Environment Agency needs to have a dedicated team working non-stop on water pollution. Most importantly of all, they need more resources and staff to get on top of this.”

The EA, which employs around 10,600 staff, is responsible for tackling flooding, air pollution, and waste management, as well as water quality and pollution.

Sir James Bevan, its outgoing head, has said the EA is not to blame for water pollution. He has argued that budget cuts have reduced the agency’s monitoring capability.

Ash Smith, the co-founder of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, said: “The water industry has exploited the Environment Agency's obvious lack of investigative capacity and capability for years and illegal pollution has become part of normal business practice.

“The leadership of the agency has shown dreadful negligence in leaving unsupported, under-trained staff to fight a battle they could only lose.

“Deliberate neglect or gross incompetence at CEO level? We are not sure which is worse.”

'Robust action'

Annual data to be released by the EA this Friday is expected to show that the number of hours that sewage was released into rivers last year has decreased slightly, according to The Times.

Storm overflows were built into the water network to allow sewage to be spilled into rivers to stop it backing up into homes during times of extreme pressure, such as heavy rainfall.

But the widespread use of the overflows even during dry periods has led to concerns they are being misused.

An Environment Agency spokesman said it would be untrue to say the number of specialists working in its land and water teams has decreased - adding that the overall figure has risen.

The spokesman added: “Our staff are vital to protecting the environment and we are taking robust action to hold water companies to account. This includes driving up monitoring and increasing fines for water companies to record amounts.

“The Environment Agency’s land and water teams focus on regulating water industry and farming activities and respond to incidents of pollution.”