English beach sewage dumps not being monitored properly, data shows

Water companies have been accused of failing to monitor sewage discharges at popular British seaside resorts.

Data analyzed by the Lib Dems found that many monitoring devices were either not installed or not working “90% of the time”.

The Lib Dems said figures showed a quarter of sewage discharges were not monitored last year as a result of a lack of monitors or errors.

Water companies have insisted they are committed to tackling the problem.

In Seaford, East Sussex, where the beach is popular with swimmers and families, a screen was only working a third of the time, according to a review of data by the Environment Agency.

Southern Water was forced to apologize last week after beaches in East Sussex were closed due to the release of raw sewage into the sea on the coastline.

Pollution warnings were put in place for more than 40 beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales after heavy rain overwhelmed sewage systems.

Particular concern was expressed over a handful of beaches that have swimming water status – including Littlehampton in West Sussex and Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire – where the Lib Dems said some Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) devices had not been installed at all.

Across Devon and Cornwall, one in eight of South West Water’s sewage screens installed at designated bathing locations were also either faulty or not installed, they said.

Bathing water status is given to locations where ministers expect “large numbers of people to bathe” based on past trends.

Raw sewage was pumped into rivers and coasts around 375,000 times in 2021, down 25,000 on the previous year, according to the Environment Agency.

The agency said it has increased the number of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) monitored across the network from 800 in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020. All 15,000 will have them by the end of 2023, it added.

The government previously said it wanted to reduce discharges into bathing waters by 70% by 2035 and eliminate 160,000 incidents of sewage overflows by 2040.

Water Minister Steve Double said earlier this week: “We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows.

“Work to deal with sewage overflows continues apace.”

Dr Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral researcher in marine pollution at the University of Plymouth, said achieving such targets required more investment and accountability from water companies to ensure this environmental disaster did not happen again.

“Protecting our environment and the community that enjoys it is of the utmost importance,” he told BBC News, adding that it was “environmental vandalism” for raw sewage to “enter our environment because [companies] cuts and lack of proper infrastructure”.

When all monitors were taken into account – not just those in places with bathing status – the Lib Dem analysis found that the water company with the worst record was Anglian Water, which had measured less than half (49%) of its sewage discharges due to a defective screen. or the fact that one was never installed.

This was followed by South West Water (30%) and Severn Trent Water (29%).

Stanley Johnson, the prime minister’s father, blamed his son’s administration for the sewage problem, saying it should have pushed harder.

Linking the problem to Brexit, he said Britain’s beaches had been “cleaned up” after joining the European Union in 1973. Without the “boost of the EU”, he added, the UK faced a “very dangerous and difficult situation”.

Both Anglian Water and Southern Water told BBC News that work has already been done to improve the issue.

“All but three of the places designated for swimming in our area have been rated as good or excellent for bathing water quality and all have had EDM screens installed,” an Anglian Water spokesman said.

He added that the company plans to have devices installed “in all CSOs by the end of 2023.”

At Southern, a spokesman said the company has monitors for “87.8% of our storm overflows, enabling us to report pollution more accurately.”

He added: “This covers 959 of our 974 overflows – one of the highest levels in the industry.

“We have committed £145m of investment to reduce pollution by 2025.”

Lib Dem MP Tim Farron, the party’s environment spokesman, described a “national scandal” in which water companies could be guilty of “gross negligence in failing to install sewage monitoring devices”.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for water regulator Ofwat said it was currently investigating “all sewerage companies” in England and Wales because of “concerns” about how they “manage their treatment operations”.

There are currently open cases in relation to six of them, he told BBC News, adding: “Where we find issues, we will act.”

Tory MPs last year defended themselves after 256 voted with the government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to strengthen the environment bill.

The peers wanted to force water companies and the government to demonstrate progressive reductions in raw sewage discharges and make it a standard for them to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid using combined sewer overflows.

Some MPs said the proposed amendment was unnecessary, while others argued that dumping sewage into open water was better than entering people’s homes or businesses.

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