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In 2018, United Utilities, the behemoth which operates the water and sewage systems in the North West of England, quietly started a claim in the commercial courts against the operators of the Manchester Ship Canal. Their ask? That the Court should ban certain types of legal claims which challenge water companies for dumping untreated sewage in rivers.
If you were a water company and wanted to find a real-world setting to bring an end to these claims, a slow-moving industrial waterway like the Manchester Ship Canal is exactly where you’d start. But the Court’s decision will have ramifications for everyone interested in the use of our waterways, including cold water swimmers and other community groups like angling clubs.
United Utilities aren’t happy just locking the gate, they want to throw away the key. They want to know that they can kill the fish in your water, cause damage to your nature reserve or make it unsafe to swim in your local river – all without fear of being sued.
The High Court sided with them initially because “any such discharge only happens on occasions…when particularly heavy rainfall causes the capacity of the sewerage system to be temporarily exceeded”.
But this premise just isn’t true. Untreated sewage is often dumped for months on end. And we have more and more data to prove it.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. The judge conceded that the legal question was not a straightforward one and granted the operators of Manchester Ship Canal a chance to go to the Court of Appeal.
The appeal is due to be heard at the end of March 2022, and we think it is crucial that the Court has the full picture. We have been monitoring the case for over a year, and we expect to apply to intervene, along with a coalition of concerned groups, from environmental law experts to community organisations and landowners.
We think this is a vital case to protect our last line of defence. When the Environment Agency can’t or won’t enforce the law, due to its budget and powers being stripped to the bone, and when Government has shamefully chosen not to impose an unequivocal duty on water companies to eliminate sewage dumping, the fear of these sorts of claims might well be the only thing that stops water companies from having near-total immunity to discharge sewage.
We don’t intend to let United Utilities take away our right to clean rivers.
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We have instructed Tom de la Mare QC and George Molyneaux from Blackstone Chambers along with Hausfeld & Co LLP.
Other co-interveners in the case include the Environmental Law Foundation and The Kent Environment & Community Network.