Southern Water illegally discharged sewage dozens of times last year on days when it was not raining, according to a BBC investigation.
It was one of three water companies that were involved in the practice, known as “dry spilling”, which is prohibited because it can lead to higher concentrations of sewage in waterways.
Southern Water, along with Thames and Wessex, appear to have collectively released sewage in dry spills for 3,500 hours in 2022 – in breach of their permits, according to the BBC*.
The BBC says: “Releasing sewage into rivers and seas is allowed in the UK to prevent pipe systems becoming overwhelmed but it has to have been raining.
“Without rainwater the sewage is likely to be less diluted – leading to build-ups of algae which produce toxins “that can be fatal to pets and pose a health risk to swimmers”, says Dr Linda May, a water ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
“Discharging in dry conditions is therefore illegal under environmental law.
“Collectively throughout 2022, Thames, Southern and Wessex illegally started releasing sewage on dry days 388 times – research by the BBC’s climate and data teams suggests – including during last summer when these regions were in drought.
“There even appears to have been spills by all three companies on 19 July 2022, the hottest day on record, when temperatures topped 40C in some places and many people tried to cool off in rivers.”
During 2021 Southern Water CEO Ian McAulay pocketed more than £1m in wages in the year 2020/21, despite the company receiving a record fine of £90m for wastewater treatment failures at 17 sites. On top of his £435,000-a-year salary, Mr McAulay was also handed a £550,900 bonus, meaning with pension payments and benefits, his overall pay package was a £1.082m
The BBC report highlighted links between the dry spills and government cuts to the funding of the Environment Agency which it’s claimed hampered its ability to investigate dry spills.
One of the agency’s officers – who works in environmental regulation – told the BBC anonymously there was a “firm link” between the EA’s failure to identify and investigate dry spills, and budget cuts and staff losses.
The BBC report added: “The EA’s environmental protection budget, funded by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), was halved between 2010-20.
“The officer also told us the agency was increasingly relying on water companies to report their own dry spill incidents because of these cuts.”
EA’s chief executive, John Leyland, told the BBC: “The funding for the Environment Agency is a matter of public record… and we’ve seen a steady decline in some of our funds and so we’ve had to change.
“We’ve been focusing on digital monitoring, but earlier this year we announced a program of increased investments in real people on your riverbank.”
You can read the full BBC investigation here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-66670132
*The BBC requested the same data from the other water companies in England, which said they could not respond due to being under an Environment Agency (EA) criminal investigation.