Raw sewage in rare habitats: 9 beautiful places water companies are polluting with sewage

Unearthed investigative journalists have mapped the sewage pollution in rivers, lakes and coasts in England and Wales.


Sewage poured into England and Wales’ most-precious coastlines and waterways for more than 300,000 hours in 2022, a new Unearthed investigation has found.

Greenpeace’s investigative journalists found nearly 1,200 sewage pipes that spilled in or close to important natural habitats last year.

Why are sewage spills measured in hours?

Sewage pollution spills from storm overflows are measured in hours through Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) data. Water companies legally have to monitor and report these hours to the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales for their permits.

These are places that are supposed to be protected by formal conservation regimes: Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Area of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Area (SPAs) and Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance).

These often overlap with national parks and popular holiday destinations. 

Unearthed mapped these areas against water companies’ sewage spill monitoring data, which details the number and length of spills from each pipe in 2022. This interactive map shows how much sewage poured into important nature sites across England and Wales last year.

Here are some of the beautiful and scientifically-important wild places water companies are polluting:

1. Dorset Coast

The Solent and Dorset Coast is a Special Protection Area spanning West Sussex, Isle of Wight and Dorset. This coastline received more than 14,000 hours of sewage spills last year.

Bognor Regis (Aldwick), a coastal town popular during the holiday season, falls within the SPA and was given “Poor” bathing water status in 2022.

A glowing red sunrise through purple and orange clouds, over a still seascape and coastline emerging from the left with wooden groynes stretching out into the sea in perpendicular lines along the whole coast, silhouetted by the sunrise

Sunrise over Bognor Regis Beach (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

2. Lake District

The River Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lake SAC includes parts of Cumbria such as the Lake District. It was one of the worst-hit areas, receiving more than 6,600 hours of sewage in 2022. 

A still river perfectly reflects the blue sky streaked with wispy clouds and trees and a large mossy rock in the foreground. A stretch of mountains is visible in the distance

The River Derwent near Grange in the Lake District. (Photo by: Anna Stowe/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Anna Stowe

3. Pembrokeshire Coast

The Pembrokeshire Marine SAC is one of the largest of its kind, extending all around the Pembrokeshire coast of West Wales, and offshore. It received nearly 7,000 hours of sewage pollution last year.

A pale beige mushroom with a thin stalk on a scrubland clifftop. The blue sea is visible in the background, with other mushrooms in the vicinity
A puffin on a green and white-rock cliff edge, high up over the sea. Its beak is yellow and orange and its white face shows off its delicately eyelinered eyes.

Wild Parasol mushroom growing near the sea in St Bride’s Bay. (Photo by: Loop Images/David Cheshire/Universal Images Group via Getty Images); Puffin – pelagic seabird, Fratercula, landed on clifftop in breeding season on island of Skomer, National Nature Reserve, Wales, United Kingdom. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

4. River Usk

The River Usk//Afon Wysg SAC runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park, which was recently renamed Bannau Brycheiniog in the Welsh language. More than 9,700 hours of sewage poured into this protected area last year. 

A beautiful ancient looking multi-arched stone bridge over a rocky shallow river, showing some areas of fast-flowing water, with bright green trees all around

The River Usk and Llangynidr Bridge in the Brecon Beacons National Park. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

5. River Wye

River Wye/Afon Gwy (England and Wales SACs), is an area that has been in the spotlight recently because of the high levels of agricultural water pollution currently damaging the river. The area also receives high amounts of sewage releases, which totalled more than 16,000 hours last year.

A landscape of the river wye, with green and tyellow pasture and trees stretching into the distance. In the foreground a wide river, which melts back into a misty glade among trees and a cloud-spotted pale blue sky

Mist on the river Wye at Bigsweir. (Photo by: David Cheshire/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) David Cheshire

6. Plymouth Sound

Plymouth Sound and Estuary SAC straddles the borders of Devon and Cornwall. This is another popular holiday destination that was heavily hit with sewage discharges, receiving more than 11,000 hours in 2022.

Earlier this year, the utility company South West water was fined £2.1 million for multiple illegal sewage incidents dating back to 2016, including one discharge from Torpoint sewage treatment works into Plymouth Sound.

A bright orange sunset sky with a half-sun glowing orb visible just behind mountains and small estuary islands. A central island has a jetty silhouetted by the light. In the foreground, two sailboats, one with a sail up and one without, are also silhouetted on the still water.

View from Jennycliff of Plymouth Sound with Drakes Island at sunset. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


7. Morecambe Bay

Morecambe Bay and Duddon SPA (also an SAC) received close to 15,000 hours of sewage. Locals have reported issues with swimming amongst human faeces around the bay on visits to the beach after heavy rainfall. The newspaper Lancs Live reported that people were avoiding swimming in the sea and had described a strong odour coming from the coastline. 

A purple and orange sunset over a large stretch of beach, with dappled light reflecting in damp sand, greenish rocks in the foreground and a perfectly central split where a sliver of sea (with some tiny buildings ans a vehicle) meets the brightest yellow part of the sky where the sun has just set.

Sunset over Morecambe Bay (Image by Dave Noonan from Pixabay)

8. Humber Estuary

The Humber Estuary is an SAC, SSSI, SPA and Ramsar site. Despite having all these protected statuses, it received nearly 3,500 hours of sewage in 2022. In 2019, researchers found high levels of pharmaceuticals in the water here, with the highest concentrations of ibuprofen found on the globe. This came mostly from regular discharges from wastewater treatment works but raw sewage also contributed.


A greenish-borwn patch of grassland with a grey sea+sky estuary in the background. Central at the fore is a deer, perking its ears up to face the sunlight

A Roe Deer stands on the coastline at Spurn Point Coastal Reserve in Spurn Head, England. 2012 Getty Images

9. River Avon

The Special Protection Areas around the River Avon that runs from Bristol to Bath received almost 7,000 hours. Swimmers have reported getting seriously ill from swimming in this river.

A riverside scene covered in trees and greenery, with sun and shade dappling a path that leads around the riverside bend. An inflatable is being carried in the distance on the path.
A completely green scene of near-still water and trees fluffing up abundantly in the distance

The River Avon at Conham, southeast Bristol. An inflatable is being carried in the distance on the path. (© Derek Harper); The River Avon at St Anne’s Park, east Bristol. (© Pierre Terre)


What is in raw sewage pollution?

Studies have found that sewage being released into natural ecosystems can raise concentrations of all sorts of pollutants, including nutrients, pathogens, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs. 

Pollution from sewage and agriculture can cause a build up of poisonous and foul smelling algae on the surface of water. When the algal blooms eventually die, their decomposition drains the water of oxygen, which has the potential to kill off fish and create hypoxic or anoxic “dead zones” in which most species cannot survive

In still or slow moving water, toxic blue green algae can kill fish, wild animals, livestock and dogs that swim in the water or drink it, and can cause severe illnesses in humans. 

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