Northumbrian Water has been fined over £500k for polluting a watercourse, in a prosecution brought by the Environment Agency.
The water company received the fine at Durham Crown Court, having changed its plea and admitted causing or knowingly permitting a water discharge activity on 22 May 2017. The incident followed the discovery of raw untreated sewage flowing from a burst manhole cover in Heads Hope Dene into a nearby stream, between Hutton Henry and Castle Eden in east Durham.
Northumbrian Water’s engineers made the discovery themselves, as they had been aware of problems caused by blockages of a combined sewer in the rural location due to tree root damage and were at the scene preparing for amelioration work.
The company self-reported the incident to the Agency, and it is believed the pollution took place over two to three days – but it was impossible to quantify how much sewage had entered the watercourse.
Water samples indicated raw sewage had entered the stream, and later surveys found the ecology and habitat of the watercourse was damaged for 2km, with river sample results indicating a detrimental impact on water quality for 4km.
The water company began work to clear the blockage that day, as well as remedial work to make improvements. A longer-term solution to reroute the sewer out of the Dene is currently underway.
Judge James Adkin said the company was aware of serious tree root ingress following checks in April 2017, and although there was little time for immediate significant work, it made only “a makeshift response to an active pollution threat”. Chicken wire and bales had been used near the manhole to hold back sewage debris, which he described as being “totally inadequate” when the pollution incident took place.
Agency regional environment manager Rachael Caldwell said water companies had a legal duty to avoid pollution and “must act quickly to reduce any damage that happens as a result of their activities”.
Northumbrian Water was fined £540,000 and ordered to pay costs of more than £142,000, as well as a £170 victim surcharge.
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