British sewage overflow stinks across the Channel

PARIS (AP) — EU lawmakers have a new, post-Brexit reason to be upset with Britain: British sewage is overflowing the English Channel and the North Sea.

Heavy rain after weeks of dry weather overwhelmed parts of Britain’s sewer system last week, causing raw sewage to be dumped into rivers and seas. The problem is a long-running issue in Britain, where regulators are investigating possible license breaches by six major water companies and environmental groups claim the companies have failed to make necessary repairs.

This is mainly a problem for the UK, where people were warned to stay away from dozens of beaches last week, raising concerns about public health and damage to wildlife. British campaign group Surfers Against Sewage reported 654 reports of sewer overflows dumping sewage into bathing waters this summer, from 171 locations in England and Wales.

However, three French MEPs wrote to the European Commission on Wednesday warning that the sewage could also threaten bathing waters, fishing grounds and biodiversity in the European Union.

“The English Channel and the North Sea are not dumping grounds,” said Stephanie Yon-Courtin, a member of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee and a local councilor in Normandy.

“We cannot tolerate the environment, the economic activity of our fishermen and the health of our citizens being put at serious risk because of the UK’s repeated negligence in managing its sewage,” he said.

Lawmakers called on the Commission to “use all political and legal instruments at its disposal” to find a solution, accusing the UK of breaching its post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. They said while the UK it no longer meets EU environmental standards, is still a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Sea and is required to protect common seawater.

The European Commission said it had not contacted London so far about the complaints. “We will take this matter further as appropriate,” Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinand said Thursday.

Britain’s Conservative government dismissed the criticism, saying it has strengthened water quality regulations after Brexit.

“We also legislated for water companies to reduce the frequency and volume of discharges from storm overflows and legislated for water companies to install new monitors to report real-time sewage discharges in their area,” the Department of the Environment. Food and Rural Affairs told the BBC.

But last week the opposition Lib Dems published a report which claimed sewage discharges were not being properly recorded because many of the required monitoring devices were either not working properly or had not yet been installed.

While UK water companies are prohibited from discharging raw sewage under normal conditions, they are allowed to make such discharges when heavy rainfall threatens to overwhelm sewage treatment plants. Environmental groups claim that some companies take advantage of this exemption to save money and avoid upgrading their systems.

During the Brexit dissolution negotiations, the EU repeatedly raised fears that the UK would abandon the bloc’s strict environmental standards and bow to business pressure for a more deregulated system that could endanger their shared environment.

The trade and cooperation agreement that came into effect in early 2021 after Britain leaves the EU contains no specific provision on how to deal with stormwater flooding.

Water UK, which represents water and sewerage companies, said its members are investing £3 billion to tackle flooding as part of a national program to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025, recognizing “the urgent need for action to addressing the damage caused to the environment by spills from storm surges and sewage treatment projects’.

“Water companies cannot do this alone and so we are also calling on government, regulators, water companies, agriculture and other sectors to come together as soon as possible to deliver a comprehensive national plan that will deliver the transformation in our rivers and waterways that we all want to see,” said the water industry group.


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