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Latest 12 September 2023

Sewage dumping: Watchdog finds Government may have broken law

Good Law Project has been challenging the Government over the industrial scale of sewage dumping by water companies. Now the Office for Environmental Protection says there may have been ‘misinterpretations’ of the law.




The Office for Environmental Protection has announced it has identified potential law-breaking by Ministers, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, over untreated sewage discharges into our rivers and seas.

“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,” said Helen Venn, the Office for Environmental Protection’s, Chief Regulatory Officer.

According to Good Law Project’s Legal Director, Emma Dearnaley, the investigation is “very important and welcome”.

“But the Office for Environmental Protection has limited enforcement powers compared to its European counterpart,” Dearnaley added, “and the potential sanctions that could be imposed are at this point unclear – ranging from providing advice to a possible referral to the High Court. After so many years of inaction by the Government and the regulators, here’s hoping the Office for Environmental Protection has teeth, and isn’t afraid to use them”.

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These failings from Government and regulators are at the heart of our intervention in a case earlier this year. We supported the Manchester Ship Canal Company and Environmental Law Foundation to challenge rulings which effectively shielded United Utilities from legal action brought by individuals and businesses affected by the sewage it discharges.

We are currently awaiting judgment from the Supreme Court. If we’re successful, it could open the floodgates for a deluge of legal challenges against polluting water companies.

The unacceptable alternative is that the issue is left solely to the regulators. But the Environment Agency and Ofwat have become increasingly toothless in the wake of chronic Government underfunding, and either can’t or won’t act.

We have also been supporting a High Court challenge to force the Government to improve its inadequate Storm Overflows Discharges Reduction Plan – which currently allows water companies to keep discharging huge amounts of raw sewage through storm overflows for the next three decades. We’ve brought this case with the Marine Conservation Society, Richard Haward’s Oysters and the surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm.

We’re waiting for this judgment as well, but we’ve had significant success before even reaching the courtroom. Facing pressure from our legal challenge, the Government is now consulting on expanding its plan to include coastal waters, and it has agreed to pay part of our legal costs.

Despite these early wins, our challenge continues. We’re aiming to revive a concept from old English common law – the Public Trust Doctrine – which could be used to force the Government to look after the environment.

But we can only do it with your support. Any donation, whether big or small, will help us defend seas, lakes and rivers for generations to come.

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