The Environment Agency has successfully prosecuted Southern Water for thousands of illegal raw sewage discharges that polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, resulting in a record £90m fine.
To date, it is the largest fine the Agency has imposed on a water company for an environmental breach, and follows 51 guilty pleas to widespread and long-term breaches of environmental law from 2010-15.
The investigation found that the environmental damage was caused by deliberate failings that brought about major harm (Category 1) to protected areas, conservation sites and oyster bays. It was the largest ever criminal investigation carried out by the Agency, and saw offences from 16 wastewater treatment works and one stormwater overflow brought together in one prosecution at Canterbury Crown Court. The company admitted to 6,971 illegal spills of raw sewage that lasted 61,704 hours and contaminated seas and rivers in the south of England.
The court was told that Southern Water was deliberately misleading regulators in relation to compliance, which hindered proper regulation and disallowed early actions on pollution incidents, leading to greater environmental harm.
The judge initially fined Southern Water £135m, but this was reduced to £90m because of its early guilty plea. In 2019, Ofwat also handed Southern Water a £126m fine for regulatory failings over the same period, which included manipulating the wastewater sampling process, failing to monitor treatment works properly, lack of investment, and misreporting performance – which, as the investigation found, directly led to environmental failings.
The Honourable Mr Justice Johnson said: “Each of the 51 offences seen in isolation shows a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, […] for human health, and for the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters.
“Each offence does not stand in isolation. It is necessary to sentence the company for the totality of the offences to which it has pleaded guilty. But even that does not reflect the defendant’s criminality. That is because the offences are aggravated by its previous persistent pollution of the environment over very many years.”
Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “This sentence shows fines for environmental offences are starting to reach the same level as the highest fines for crimes in financial services and that is good.”