Rules on waste water discharge eased due to supply shortages linked to Brexit and pandemic

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Waste water plants have been told they may be allowed to discharge effluent that has not been properly treated due to chemical shortages caused by Brexit and the pandemic.

The Environment Agency (EA) has issued new guidance to water and sewerage companies, which normally release waste water under the conditions of a permit.

It said some of the firms may not be able to comply with the conditions because of chemical shortages caused by Brexit, coronavirus or other "unavoidable supply chain failures".

If so, and with the written agreement of the EA, they may be allowed to discharge the effluent without meeting the conditions, the agency said.

It said this would apply until the end of the year "unless we extend it".

The notice cannot be applied for discharges from the highest risk category of waste "because the risk is too great", the EA said.

The prospect of waste water that has not been treated to the usual standard flowing into surface water or ground water is the latest consequence of supply chain problems across the economy - from shortages of Ikea mattresses to a lack of some beers at Wetherspoons pubs.

A tangle of issues including the pandemic and Brexit are being blamed for the problems, which include a shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers as well as a lack of workers in other key sectors.

The EA notice to water companies, issued this week, says that they must show that they have taken reasonable steps such as making contingency planning for disruption, in order to take advantage of the waiver on waste water.

They are being told they must contact the agency when they have at least two weeks' of supply of chemicals left and are unlikely to obtain enough further supplies.

The EA said firms must prioritise using the chemicals they have to treat effluent "which have the greatest potential to cause environmental harm".

They have been told to ensure their discharges of waste water does not risk causing significant environmental damage, pollution or harm to water, air, soil, plants or animals.

A spokesperson for Water UK, which represents the water industry, said: "We are currently experiencing some disruption to the supply in England of ferric sulphate, a chemical used at some drinking and wastewater treatment sites.

"This will not affect the supply of drinking water.

"As a precaution, however, we are monitoring the situation due to the use of ferric sulphate in some waste treatment works.

"We are working closely with government and our chemical suppliers to ensure disruption is minimised.

"This issue has arisen due to a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK.

"There is no shortage of ferric sulphate in factories; the issue is solely one of distribution."

A government spokesperson said: "This action is strictly time-limited and there are robust conditions in place to mitigate risks to the environment.

"The most sensitive and high-risk watercourses will not be affected and any company planning to make use of this short-term measure must first agree its use with the Environment Agency, which will be checking compliance."

The government also said no water company had yet made use of the notice.

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