Suppliers ‘downgrade’ water pollution events with Environment Agency approval

A BBC Panorama investigation suggests that at least one firm reclassified sewage leaks to make them ‘disappear’ from records as calls for a criminal investigation begin. 

brown wooden dock on body of water during daytime

United Utilities, one of the largest suppliers in England and Wales, reportedly downgraded dozens of pollution events. These included incidents impacting Lake Windermere, one of the country’s most treasured natural heritage sites and a key focal point for tourism in the Lake District. 

In addition to the company attempting to present the event as less harmful than it was, the Environment Agency has also been accused of being complicit by signing off all downgrades without attending any of the incidents. After the evidence was presented, the Liberal Democrats have begun calling for a criminal investigation to be opened, with Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, accusing the Government of ‘turning a blind eye to corruption at the heart of the water industry’. 

The news has hit just weeks after it was announced that water regulator Ofwat would be issuing fines to suppliers amounting to significantly less money than had been predicted in September. Ironically, United Utilities was listed as the best performer in the sector for 2022-2023, with just 16 pollution events per 10,000km of sewer. This means the firm is allowed to rise an additional £5.1million by increasing bills for its seven million customers in the new financial year. 

However, a whistleblower within the Environment Agency told Panorama that the company was guilty of ‘controlling the evidence’, and pointed to the fact that between 2020 and 2022 there were 931 reported water pollution events in North West England, the region United Utilities supplies, yet the Environment Agency attended just six of these to assess the extent of the impact.

When looking at 200 individual reports for incidents at the company’s sewage works, more than 60 were incorrectly downgraded to the lowest category, and all were signed off by the Government department. One of these incidents saw raw sewage pumped into the middle of Lake Windermere for around three ours straight. While this was initially considered a serious category 2 event, it was then downgraded to the lowest, category 4, by United Utilities.

The company then denied that sewage had been dumped, but records obtained by the BBC have now shown this to be untrue. Category 4 should only be used when pollution does not enter the water course, or is effectively a ‘trickle into a large water course’. 

‘The water company don’t want us to attend and then an incident like this gets downgraded to a low level or, effectively, gets kept off the books,’ the whistleblower told Panorama. ‘If they [United Utilities] say attend – which is incredibly rare – we’ll attend… If they say don’t attend, we don’t attend. They’re effectively regulating themselves.’

The revelations have once again muddied the waters around the entire water industry. Just last month, Environment Journal reported on accusations of a ‘revolving door’ system between Ofwat and the industry itself. Several people leaving senior roles at the regulator have walked straight into executive positions at UK water suppliers, raising serious questions about the level of scrutiny and enforcement taking place within the sector. 

More on water pollution:

What Ofwat penalties for failing UK water suppliers tell us

Ocean acidification will soon be irreversible, costing $400bn

Data-based water systems could slow resource depletion

Image: Michael Schofield



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