Image above: Sewage pollution in the Thames, from a video taken on Friday 14 July on the south side of Barnes Bridge and shared on Twitter by @ruduss
Thames Water ‘serious’ pollution incidents the worst since 2013
The Environment Agency has published its annual report into the performance of England’s nine water and sewerage companies and found Thames Water had made no improvement in 2022 compared with the previous year and that the company had had 17 ‘serious water quality pollution incidents’, the highest number since 2013.
Overall it found the number of pollution incidents in England had worsened since 2021. “It is simply unacceptable to see a decline in this vital metric” said Chair of the Environment Agency Alan Lovell.
“The disappointing results are surprising” he said in the introduction to the report, “given that when I talk to the Chairs and CEOs of these companies, I get a real sense of their intent to do better.
“But why is this not happening yet? Primarily, I think, because of the time it takes for cultures to change in large organisations and because there are some deep-rooted problems which can only be solved by significant investment. Not just this year and next, but for some decades to come.”
Image above: Outlet just south of Barnes Railway Bridge
Thames Water ‘not meeting basic environmental requirements
While some companies such as Severn Trent Water received a four-star rating for their efforts, “the top of a very poor league”, Thames Water was among the majority of companies with two stars, indicating they were not meeting basic environmental requirements. Thames Water is the UK’s largest water company, with 15 million customers in London and the Thames Valley.
More than half the serious pollution incidents came from two companies – Anglian Water and Thames Water – and less than half of them were reported by the companies themselves.
The Environment Agency does not count the overflow from storm drains as pollution. Storm overflows are a necessary part of the current sewerage system, designed to discharge storm sewage (wastewater diluted with rainwater) to rivers or the sea at times of rainfall or snow melt, to prevent storm sewage backing up into homes and flooding streets.
If they are working as intended, they are not counted as pollution incidents. What they describe as ‘serious water quality pollution incidents’ come mainly from below ground sewerage assets.
Thames Water was performing “significantly below target” when it came to serious incidents, the report said. It had the highest number of category one incidents, and it was also one of the worst at reporting them.
In 2017 the company received a record fine of £20 million for sewage leakage. Two weeks ago it was fined more than £3 million for, according to the citation, ‘deliberately misleading’ The Environment Agency. The government has recently announced that it was removing the cap on fines for breaches of licence permits.
“We are concerned that some companies will not or cannot change”
The water companies are responsible for providing clean drinking water. In this aspect Thames Water was on target.
They are also responsible for working with partners to reduce flood risk to communities. The report says: ‘Data sharing between water companies and other risk management authorities is a means of improving delivery of flood risk management outcomes. A few water companies have made real progress with data sharing, but for others, effective sharing remains an issue.’
The report concluded the sector as a whole needed to improve. The majority of water companies are not meeting basic environmental requirements.
“We are concerned that some companies will not or cannot change. Anglian Water and Thames Water repeatedly dominate serious incident numbers.
“These water companies in particular need to make radical changes now, but all water companies have areas to improve.
You can read the whole report from the Environment Agency here: gov.uk
Image above: Fixing burst pipes
Chief executive resigns and interim CEOs are called to answer questions from MPs as Thames Water faces financial crisis
Water UK and the English water and sewerage companies recently made a public apology for their poor level of service.
The chief executive of Thames Water Sarah Bentley resigned at the end of June after just two years in the job, after it was revealed that leakage from the company’s pipes was at a five year high, and that the company would not meet its target to stop up the leaks this year, according to information obtained by the Guardian under freedom of information laws. Leaks are estimated at 630m litres a day.
The company is also facing a financial crisis, with £14bn of debt. As fears were expressed that the company would go under, it was widely reported that the government was prepared to take it over. A week ago shareholders agreed to provide a further £750m in funding, but Thames said it would be looking for an extra £2.5bn between 2025 and 2030.
The company’s interim CEOs and Chair were summoned to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week to answer questions on how they would manage the debt.
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