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Raw sewage in our rivers: the legal and environmental impact

Raw sewage in our rivers: the legal and environmental impact

Matthew Biggerstaff


Reading time: three minutes

You may have been reading headlines like “sewage dumping leaves fish full of cocaine”, which sounds more akin to an Alan Partridge radio headline than serious news. However, this is in fact from an official marine expert, following the recent sewage dumping over the last few weeks. According to Sky News, sewage dumping into the UK’s rivers and seas are the worst on record. While Water UK, the body for sewage companies, blames heavy rain, the Environment Agency has not been so quick to accept this explanation.

This is also not a new topic of conversation. Opposition to sewage dumping in any form has been argued for many years and the recent massive increase in the practice has once again brought the topic to light. 

In the UK, rain and sewage share the same piping system. This means that, when there’s heavy rainfall, the pipes can overflow and require releasing. It’s in these circumstances that sewage dumping is deemed legal. However, when conditions are dry, or when not enough sewage has been treated, dumping sewage is illegal. The environment agency stated that heavy rainfall “does not affect water companies' responsibility to manage storm overflows in line with legal requirements”, which has again caused discussions about why sewage dumping is still deemed legal in any context. 

According to an investigation by the BBC in 2022, seven water companies in England and Wales discharged untreated sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas over 3,000 times between 2017 and 2021. As well as this, Pennon Group, the company that controls South West Water and Bristol Water, are set to be given a two-star environmental rating for the second year in a row. This rating is only a slight improvement on the one-star rating they were given in 2021. This is a problem with very real effects. During the World Triathlon Series 2023, which took place in my wonderful hometown of Sunderland, at least 57 people fell ill after competing in the event following exposure to a high level of E. coli, a direct symptom of sewage dumping. According to the map of where raw sewage has been dumped in the UK in 2023, the race took place not far from a storm drain which spilt 119 times for a total of 633 hours. 

Environmental protection is becoming more and more important, so it’s shocking that so many illegal and environmentally damaging practices are still taking place. From December 2023, the government introduced unlimited penalties for firms that are found to be illegally sewage dumping in civil cases. This is a stark increase from the previous cap of only £250,000. Labour has also vowed, if elected, to target water executives directly, who often go unpunished when charges of water pollution are brought against firms. Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, has vowed that executives will be held criminally liable for sewage dumping. Due to the length of time it usually takes to bring criminal charges for sewage dumping to trial, the Environmental Agency commonly brings civil charges rather than criminal, which often allows executives to go unpunished.  

With storm overflows dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas across England and Wales for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023, it’s clear that water firms must be held accountable for the practice, and that more must be done to protect the seas and rivers of this country. So, next time you think about having a dip in the sea, try and forget what you might actually be swimming in.