Water/Wastewater

  • How Bad Are Water Companies for Pollution?

How Bad Are Water Companies for Pollution?

Mar 11 2018 Read 1050 Times

Water companies throughout England are to blame for an “alarming” number of leakages and spillages of pollution every year, according to the Environment Agency. Although the number of incidents in the UK has dropped significantly over the last decade, the Agency’s chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd says the amount is still “too high”.

By the numbers

In 2005, the number of significant pollution incidents caused by water companies was more than 130. With the government ramping up pressure on the industry and imposing fines on those found to transgress, that figure has been brought down to 57 last year, which a spokesman for Water UK claims represents 99% compliance among discharge practices.

Water UK argues that the vast majority of water companies have brought their operations up to speed with industry-standard outfits on the continent, but accidents do still happen. In 2017, Thames Water received the biggest fine ever given to a water company at £20.3 million for discharging 1.4 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Thames River over a two-year period.

Not enough of a deterrent

Despite the fact that the Thames Water fine was almost ten times greater than the previous record fine (the £2 million given to Southern Water in late 2016 for allowing untreated sewage to reach Kent beaches), critics say it is still not enough of a deterrent. In fact, the £20.3 million figure only represented the equivalent of 10 days’ profit for the organisation.

An investigation conducted by the Financial Times found that between 2006 and 2016, Thames Water racked up a debt of £10.6 billion, a pension deficit of £260 million and paid zero corporation tax. Despite this, investors still received total dividends of £1.6 billion. As such, critics have complained that the government must impose fines that actually put a dent in company finances, otherwise they will prove not to be a deterrent for bad practices at all.

The case for the defence

The water industry has pointed to the dramatic fall in incidents over the last 10 years as proof of their efforts to improve pollution policy, highlighting the fact that agriculture (responsible for 31% of incidents) has now overtaken the water industry (responsible for 28%) as the biggest cause of water pollution.  

As well as tightening up procedures and employing the latest technologies, water companies are also looking at innovative methods of minimising the risk of pollution incidents. Just last month, United Utilities hired a sniffer dog to try and detect leaks through the power of smell.

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