Water company fined for two pollution offences in Devon

4th April 2017

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David Inman

South West Water has been ordered to pay more than £150,000 after two separate prosecutions for polluting a stream and a beach in Devon.

The first case, in September 2014, involved a combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharging effluent into a stream at Woodbury near Exeter. The pollution killed more than 150 fish including minnows, stone loach, bullhead and eels.

CSOs are designed to prevent internal flooding of properties during storms, and are not permitted to operate in dry conditions. But the sewer had become blocked by unflushable material including disposable wipes, which resulted in effluent discharging into the stream.

The water company did not report the incident to the Environment Agency, which was eventually alerted to the incident by a member of the public.

Pete Ball of the agency said: ‘It is important water companies regularly inspect and maintain their structures and assets such as CSOs to ensure they are operating in accordance with their permit and do not cause pollution.

‘While South West Water responded quickly to this incident, it failed to report the extent of the environmental impact of this spill, especially the fish deaths.’

The judge at Exeter Crown Court ordered the company to pay £70,000 in fines and £19,023 costs.

The second case involved sewage leaking into a stream running through the centre of Dawlish, south of Exeter, in August 2015. A brick had blocked the sewer, causing it to overflow. South West Water did not dispatch an emergency team until three hours after the alarm was sounded, according to the Environment Agency. The team initially went to the wrong part of the town and reported that nothing was wrong.

Levels of E.coli bacteria in Dawlish Water increased significantly as a result of the discharge, from 990 per 100ml upstream of the sewer pipe to 4,800,000 at the point of discharge. Further downstream the level had reduced to 70,000, however children had been seen playing in the water in this area. Dilution in the sea meant there were safe levels of E.coli in the town’s bathing water, the agency said.

The company was fined £80,000 and ordered to pay costs of £6,202.

South West Water admitted guilt in both cases, but said its environmental performance had improved since the incidents. The firm said it was spending more than £460m on improving the sewerage network between 2015 and 2020, nearly 20% more than it spent in the previous five-years.

Referring to the pollution at Woodbury, the company said in a statement: ‘We accept that fish died as a result of the discharge and that this was not immediately reported to the agency on the Saturday, as it should have been, and for this we apologise.

‘We responded promptly and an operator was already en route when the EA reported the incident to us. The blockage was cleared within an hour with further cleansing work carried out to prevent a recurrence.’

South West Water invested £142,000 to upgrade the sewerage network in Woodbury in 2015 and a further £495,000 is now being invested, it said. A monitor has been installed at the site to reduce the risk of a similar incident in future, it added.

The incident at Dawlish had a ‘minor, localised’ impact on water quality in the stream, but did not affect bathing water quality, the company said.

It is running education campaigns to make the public aware of what should not be disposed of down the toilet.

The prosecutions are the company’s third and fourth this year. In February it was ordered to pay £205,000 after more than 700,000 litres of sewage polluted an internationally important shellfishery in Cornwall.

In January, the company was ordered to pay £54,000 for allowing untreated sewage to escape from a pumping station in Cornwall.

The company deteriorated from a ‘below average’ rating in the agency’s last annual Environmental Performance Assessment in 2014 to a ‘poor’ rating in 2015 and has also missed pollution targets set by Ofwat.

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