UK government may have broken environmental law on sewage overflows -watchdog

By Kylie MacLellan and Sachin Ravikumar

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s government and water regulator may have failed to comply with environmental law over the regulation of untreated sewage releases, the country’s environmental protection watchdog said on Tuesday.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) said it believed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), regulator Ofwat and the government’s Environment Agency may all have misinterpreted the law.

Water companies are facing the biggest wave of public criticism over the dumping of raw sewage and the poor quality of rivers and beaches since the industry was privatised in 1989.

The release of sewage into waterways is only supposed to happen during exceptional rainfall to stop it backing up into homes, but campaigners say water companies are discharging much more often than they should.

In 2022, water companies in England alone released raw sewage into rivers and the sea 301,091 times, an average of 825 times a day, according to data from the Environment Agency.

“Where we interpret the law to mean that untreated sewage discharges should generally be allowed only in exceptional circumstances … it appears that the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently,”  OEP Chief Regulatory Officer Helen Venn said in a statement.

“The guidance provided by government to regulators, and the permitting regime they put in place for the water companies, possibly allow untreated sewage discharges to occur more regularly than intended by the law without risk of sanction.”

The OEP said the three authorities have two months to respond and set out proposed measures to address the issues.

Defra said it did not agree with the OEP’s interpretations but would work constructively with it on the issue.

“The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable,” a Defra spokesperson said, adding the government was taking “comprehensive action to tackle it, driving forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement”.

The Environment Agency said it would always take action against companies that did not follow the rules, while Ofwat also said it would work with OEP.

“Water companies’ performance on the environment is simply not good enough,” an Ofwat spokesperson said. “We will keep pushing for the change.”

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Sachin Ravikumar, Additional reporting by Muvija MEditing by Alexandra Hudson)