British water companies face $1 billion lawsuits over pollution – law firm

LONDON (Reuters) – Six British water companies are facing lawsuits valued at over 800 million pounds ($1 billion) brought on behalf of millions of customers for allegedly overcharging customers by under-reporting sewage discharges, a law firm said on Wednesday.

Environmental and water consultant Carolyn Roberts, who plans to bring the claims, says water companies would have faced penalties if they had properly reported pollution incidents.

Roberts says the companies’ alleged failure to report pollution incidents had led to customers being overcharged.

A 330 million-pound case against Severn Trent was filed at London’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), law firm Leigh Day said in a statement.

The firm said it will also be filing cases against five other companies – Thames Water, United Utilities, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water – in the coming months.

The lawsuits follow the biggest wave of public criticism over the dumping of raw sewage and the poor quality of rivers and beaches since the water industry was privatised in 1989.

Water companies have pushed back against the proposed claims, describing them as “highly speculative”.

A Severn Trent spokesperson said any pollution incidents have been reported to Britain’s Environment Agency, adding: “Any claim to the contrary is wholly and completely wrong.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said the company was aware of the potential claim, which they said was without merit.

A spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “This highly speculative claim is entirely without merit.”

“The regulator has confirmed that over 99% of sewage works comply with their legal requirements. If companies fail to deliver on their commitments, then customer bills are already adjusted accordingly.”

Yorkshire Water declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings. Anglian Water referred to Water UK’s statement and Northumbrian Water did not respond to a request for comment.

The cases are being brought as collective proceedings – which are roughly equivalent to class actions in the United States – by environmental consultant Roberts.

Water companies have avoided being penalised by regulator Ofwat for “serial and serious under-reporting” of pollution incidents, she said in a statement.

“I believe this has resulted in consumers being unfairly overcharged for sewage services,” Roberts added.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; Editing by Bernadette Baum)