How Windrush Against Sewage Pollution is working to make the rivers safe
The River Windrush, in Oxfordshire, Southern England, is home to wildlife and many plants. Almost all of the rivers in the UK are polluted, and most of the pollution results from sewage dumping, mainly from the last ten years. This has had a devastating effect on Nature, habitats, and wildlife and has made our waters too unhealthy for humans to swim or bathe in.
Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (“WASP”) is working to end sewage pollution. We aim to make rivers safe for all and end the illegal release of sewage into the River Windrush and her sister rivers. When pollution is reduced, rivers recover quickly.
WASP wants the bar raised and standards improved so legally discharged waste doesn’t further harm. WASP wants to pass the river onto the next generation as an asset, not a liability and wants to get our river to be a designated bathing area for humans. The River Windrush used to be a community asset, and somewhere people could play, paddle and swim. WASP want to make the river safe for all, which is also an achievable way to help the natural world.
A local town’s charity rafting event was cancelled due to concerns about public health. Plant life is being choked out of existence by sewage fungi and algae. Some fish species (such as barbel and grayling) are struggling to breed.
Using crowdfunding and “Citizen Science” with local volunteers and professional scientists, WASP investigated the state of the river and the causes of pollution by collecting, measuring, and analysing data on water quality and the processes that lead to sewage pollution and the impact it has on the environment using data provided by the Water companies in combination with rainfall data.
WASP has informed and educated the public, companies, agencies responsible for managing sewage, and the government to improve awareness of the issues, providing accurate and balanced information. The WASP story was picked up by BBC and ITV News and national newspapers.
WASP have spent a lot of time campaigning and want sewage pollution to stop harming wildlife. Thanks to sewage pollution, the River Windrush is increasingly hostile to life, and WASP wants to give animals back their homes.
The water industry has often been allowed to function illegally and with impunity. In 2020, Thames Water reported spilling untreated sewage for 3,644 hours on 228 occasions from 4 of the sewage works on the River Windrush. Sadly, this is happening to rivers across the country. Thames Water is spilling huge quantities of untreated sewage, and this is happening regularly, but only the most extreme pollution events result in fines. This has led to a culture of cumulative damage – a drip feed of poison that goes under the radar.
It’s more profitable to pollute than to act sustainably. In 2020, Thames Water reported profits of £244.6 million after tax. As a whole, the water industry has made around £72 billion since being privatised. They continue to pollute -both legally and illegally — but there is little incentive to fix the problem.
The Environment Agency is a public body designated to protect and improve the environment in the UK. However, the Agency’s prosecution policy ignores many offences; meanwhile, our River and all life that depends on it are being destroyed.
WASP has been asking questions such as in whose interest are the Environment Agency working for? As regulators, the Agency has failed to protect the Rivers that were once clear and healthy ten years ago.
WASP has been investigating ‘conflicts of interest’ in the Environment Agency since 2019. It discovered through obtaining information using the Freedom of Information Act; the Agency allowed its staff to have shares in water companies and also directorships and business interests in regulated companies.
Details of conflicts of interest declared by Environment Agency Directors are supposed to be publicly available for inspection, and transparency is supposed to be important. Still, WASP was met with obstruction, delay, apparent breaches of the law, and responses that lacked credibility. It appears that the Government doesn’t care either.
Along with Water companies, Agriculture and industrial food production and processing are another well-known river polluters. The Deputy Chair of the Environment Agency from 2016 to 2022 was appointed to the Environment Agency in 2013 and made Deputy Chair in 2016. From September 2015, he declared he was also a Non-Executive Director at Dairy Crest – Dairy processing and Moy Park – chicken production and processing since 2010. Many people will know how industrial-scale chicken farming has proliferated and its relevance in any discussion about river pollution.
In June 2022, Dairy Crest was sentenced at Crown Court for a series of serious pollution offences committed over five years starting in 2016. By 9 March 2020, the Deputy Chair had resigned from Dairy Crest on 15 April 2019 but remained in post at the Environment Agency until 31 March 2022. His roles in industrial farming appear to seriously question the Agency’s grip on conflicts of interest, the protection of its operations, and the maintenance of public confidence.
WASP contacted the Agency and asked questions on this. They said personal or business interests do not influence its Board and committee members, but the reality seems very different.
WASP found a Lead member for the Environment Agency was a Managing Director at the water company United Utilities Group plc (UU) until May 2009 and declared that he was in receipt of a United Utilities pension and was also a shareholder. He was appointed to lead the Environment Agency board for the area served by the water company for which he was a Director and shareholder. How could he have performed his role effectively without a conflict of interest?
WASP investigations have shown the Environment Agency’s applied measures are hopelessly inadequate and poorly applied. It is becoming clear from the Agency’s resistance to answering questions of matters of public interest, public confidence and transparency that an independent inquiry into what has been going on inside the regulator is long overdue. The Agency is under its new leadership, so we hope the revelations of whistleblowers may be more welcome and the organisation may become more willing to learn and less inclined to conceal than WASPs have observed in the past.
WASP are raising questions about the nature of the interests and the adequacy of the measures in place to safeguard the integrity of the Environment Agency and individuals. We do not claim to have evidence of wrongdoing on the part of individuals or evidence of corruption. Still, we are calling out the Environment Agency’s leadership and the government’s negligent attitude to corruption control.
The news recently covered a story of the £90M fine given to Southern Water, a company with a long history of criminality. The case was finalised at Canterbury Crown Court in July 2021. The Southern Water offences took place between 2010 and 2015, and the result of the long period of pollution of coastal waters was very considerable environmental damage and financial harm to the community and shellfish industry. The offending was massive and protracted.
Prosecuting Lawyer Andrew Marshall told the court the offending was deliberate and was known about at the corporate level. This was “the worst case brought by the Environment Agency in its history”, the court was told. Southern Water had acted “deliberately” and had reaped “considerable financial advantage” by allowing the discharges. (source – Sandra Laville in the Guardian, 6 July 2021)
The Judge, of course also noticed the link to the company’s management: His Honour, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, said the offences had been “committed deliberately” by Southern Water’s board of directors at the time.’
“It is far more likely to be due to deliberate disregard for the law from the top down,” the judge said. (Source BBC report July 2021).
Before the July 2021 sentencing, Southern Water pleaded guilty to the offences in March 2020. This happened under the watch of the Environment Agency, which do not seem like a regulator fit to operate in the voracious commercial world it inhabits, where pollution for profit is deeply rooted, and companies benefit by avoiding regulation. A world where campaigners have shown the deliberate and corporate abuse of regulation and the law to be rampant while the regulators mainly looked the other way. The Board and Executive Directorship are exposed to interests that they themselves are supposed to control. The system is broken.
The Environment Secretary, who is ultimately responsible for the shambolic state of regulation, is simply avoiding the hard questions, which will not go away. Just like the infrastructure, the regulatory system is broken and leaky. WAS are saying that the measures to provide transparency, show probity and retain public confidence in the regulator/regulated relationship are not working.
WASP have had successes and results because they have taken action and let people know about the pollution and the scale of it and damage to habitats and the environment. We encourage others to find out the truth and put pressure on the water companies to do better.
The wins so far
- The Environment Act 2021 requires the government to produce a plan by September 2023 to reduce sewage discharges from water firms’ ‘storm overflows’ and create a report showing what is needed to eliminate them altogether.
- The law also requires water companies and the Environment Agency to publish annual and near real-time data on sewage spills and forces firms to monitor water upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works. However, the same water companies were accused of failing to monitor sewage discharge at British seaside resorts this week.
We will keep calling it out and holding companies and the Environment Agency to account until our rivers are clean.