Bosses of polluting water companies should face jail, says Environment Agency


Top executives of England’s water companies should be jailed for “appalling” levels of pollution, the Environment Agency concludes in its latest report.

The Environment Agency’s annual assessment has found an increase in polluting activities by most water and sewerage companies in England, with pollution performance falling to its lowest level since 2013.

In view of the “appalling” situation, the regulator called on the leaders of the organizations to incur prison sentences if they watch serious and repeated pollution incidents, as enforcement actions and court-imposed fines for violating environmental laws have proven unable to improve environmental performance.

In his reportthe agency identifies 62 “serious pollution incidents” in the past year, up from 44 the previous year, in what it describes as the worst pollution performance in years.

In his conclusions, tThe agency classifies four of the country’s nine water companies as “in need of significant improvement”, while two others, Southern and South West Water, have been described by the agency as “terrible on all levels”. Only three companies – Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities – received the highest rating.

In a damning ruling, Environment Agency President Emma Howard Boyd called for much tougher penalties for water companies that discharge sewage into rivers.

“Corporate leaders have let this happen and it’s just unacceptable,” she said. “Over the years, the public has seen water company executives and investors amply rewarded while the environment pays the price. Water companies behave this way for a simple reason – because they can. We intend to make it too painful for them to continue as they are.

The EA rates water companies based on the number and severity of pollution incidents, self-reporting of these incidents, and methods of using and disposing of sewage sludge, among other factors.

Since 2015, the agency has imposed fines of more than £138million on water companies that failed to meet its environmental protection standards. Last year it concluded seven lawsuits against water and sewer companies with fines of £90m, £4m, £2.3m, £1.5m sterling, £150,000 and £540,000. Other lawsuits are currently progressing through the courts.

However, the EA pointed out that the fines imposed often amount to less than the salary of a general manager and therefore do not result in a significant change.

“This report shows that water companies ignore their legal responsibilities,” said a Defra spokesman. “The heads of the water companies cannot continue to make huge profits while polluting our waters.”

EA and Ofwat have begun to investigate the polluting practices of water companies, following several the companies’ admission that they may have been illegally dumping sewage into rivers and seas for years. In addition, the EA along with Ofwat (the water industry regulator) and Defra, is being investigated by the industry’s new watchdog, the Environmental Protection Board, for potentially failed to regulate wastewater discharges.

Responding to the assessment, the chief executive of industry body Water UK, Christine McGourty, admitted the industry “needs to do better”.

Although some companies demonstrated excellent performance, the total number of serious pollution incidents was too high, contrary to the recent trend of year-on-year improvements,” she added.Tackling this issue is our highest priority and each company has a comprehensive plan in place to achieve this.”

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