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Last year, raw sewage was dumped into rivers and coastal areas across England by private water companies for a total of 1.7 million hours – the equivalent of 4,808 hours every single day.
In response to the problem, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) set up a “storm overflows taskforce”, in 2020 to help “prevent harm”. But our research shows the taskforce has held just ONE meeting in twelve months – breaking its commitment to meet fortnightly.
DEFRA in response to our freedom of information request said: “the Storm Overflows Taskforce met on 30 August 2022” and at no other point between 01 April 2022 and 25 April 2023.
DEFRA also confirmed that the taskforce is still live and its current members include the Environment Agency and the Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) as well as Wessex Water. The trade group Water UK is also a member – it represents private water companies who, collectively, have dumped raw sewage into English waterways for over 7 million hours since 2020.
The Taskforce agreed ‘terms of reference’, establishing the need to “meet fortnightly, with exact frequency and timings of meetings at the discretion of the Chairperson in consultation with the group members”. But, contrary to its own terms, the Taskforce hasn’t met at all since the publication of the ‘Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan’ in August 2022.
In response to our request, DEFRA said: “officials have continued to take action on sewage discharges” which includes the development of the Water Restoration Fund and launching the Continuous Water Quality and Event Duration Monitoring consultation.
A Defra spokesperson said:
“Our taskforce delivered exactly what it set out to do – develop proposals to significantly reduce the frequency and impact of sewage discharges from storm overflows.
“This was delivered through our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which was published in August 2022 and will require the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.”
Sewage dumping by water companies is one of the biggest environmental scandals of our times – destroying precious and biodiverse ecosystems, contaminating food sources, threatening people’s livelihoods and posing a serious health hazard to people enjoying our beaches and rivers.
Around 14,500 storm overflows are in operation across England to keep sewers from becoming overwhelmed. But as our Victorian-era sewers are pushed to their capacity, sewage is increasingly being discharged into our rivers and coastal waters.
The Government is failing to face up to the scale of the problem and put in place robust and urgent targets to ensure water companies clean up their act. That is why we have launched legal action and will be going to court next month.
If you are interested in supporting this legal challenge, you can do so here.