Let polluters assess their own water incidents, watchdog says


England’s environment watchdog has scaled back how it responds to reports of pollution in outdoor swimming spots despite growing concerns over sewage dumping on beaches, according to internal documents seen by Unearthed.

In a memo circulated to staff over the summer, the Environment Agency changed its guidance for assessing pollution events at designated bathing sites, downgrading the importance of water sampling and allowing water companies themselves to assess the impact of the pollution they cause.

It comes as the number of pollution incidents in bathing waters has surged across the country, with more than twice as many events reported in 2021 than in previous years, according to an Unearthed analysis of public data. The UK is now ranked last in Europe for bathing water quality.

Water companies have also come under fire for pumping raw sewage into Britain’s seas and rivers for more than nine million hours since 2016.

Commenting on the leaked memo, Megan Corton Scott, Greenpeace UK Political Campaigner, said:
“This summer saw public outcry as raw sewage gushed onto our beaches and into our rivers. Now we find out that the Environment Agency’s solution to the rising number of incidents is to allow water companies to mark their own homework. Sewage in our waters continues to be a national scandal, and so far neither the Environment Agency or the government seem to be doing much to stop the flow. We need an empowered, well-funded watchdog, with people at the top determined to speak up for the quality of our waters, not shying away from confronting either the companies they regulate or the ministers willing to look the other way.”

Referring to bathing water incidents, the memo describes how the “timely provision of information about the incident by the water company to the Environment Agency will allow for an early and appropriate assessment of the incident’s significance.” The introduction of toxic pollutants, the document states, will be “presumed to have an impact,” unless the water company can supply “appropriate information to demonstrate no impact”. 

This marks a departure from the previous policy, under which an agency’s pollution officer would be expected to attend the scene of major incidents and personally investigate the event, including taking water samples. But the new guidance has downgraded the importance of water samples, stressing that “taking bathing water samples, in isolation, should not be relied on as evidence of either proof or absence of impact.” Instead, “evidence can include an assessment of factors such as type of pollutant, duration of input together with factors likely to increase or decrease the impact such as dilution, decay and likely bather’s exposure.”

Read the full Unearthed story here.


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