Case Report: Severn Trent Water fined £500,000 following sewage discharge

On 22 March 2019, Birmingham Crown Court fined Severn Trent Water Limited £500,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £50,693 and a victim surcharge of £120 following a pollution incident which occurred in November 2013 at Sutton Park.

The Facts

The Court heard that Severn Trent Water Ltd was responsible for a network of sewerage pipes that run across Sutton Park, Sutton Coldfield. Sutton Park contains a diversity of flora and fauna, some of which are rare. On 12 November 2013, at around 4pm, the Sutton Park Visitor Centre received reports of a smell of sewage and that a sewer was discharging waste into the Longmoor Valley. The exact location of the incident could not be identified due to poor light. The following morning, a park ranger discovered a large amount of sewage was flowing from a manhole cover and spreading over the surrounding area. Officers from Natural England attended the site and recorded the extent of the damage. They noticed that the sewage had spread across an area of 1.15 hectares and had entered a nearby ditch. It subsequently travelled 700 metres into the Longmoor Brook to the Longmoor Pool within the Park. The incident had occurred due to debris from a broken manhole cover causing a blockage in the company’s sewer system within Sutton Park.

Severn Trent Water Ltd liaised with Natural England, the Environment Agency, Birmingham City Council and Historic England and produced a plan of remediation. To stop the spread of sewage contamination, soil and plants from the affected area had to be cleared. The area is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and around 0.65 hectares of rare and sensitive plants were destroyed.

The clean-up operation concluded in May 2014, during which time representatives from Natural England had expressed concern with its progress and efficiency.

The Decision

Severn Trent Water Ltd pleaded guilty to charges under Environmental Protection Act and Environmental Permitting Regulations. They were fined £500,000 and ordered to pay the prosecution’s costs of £50,693 and a victim surcharge of £120.

In passing sentence, His Honour Judge Drew QC noted that Sutton Park is an environmentally sensitive area, and a designated SSSI. The judge also commented on the delay in identifying the source of pollution and the subsequent clean-up operation:

“By that time thousands of gallons of raw sewage had been discharged into the park and had spread… The clear up was slow and poorly managed and as a result water continued to wash pollution further into the park.”

The judge noted that the company had three previous convictions in the last four years and that there had been another serious discharge of sewage into Sutton Park in 2006, which showed it was not an isolated incident. That, he added, should have raised awareness of the risk, however Severn Trent had failed to put in place an enforceable system to avoid another offence being committed. The judge commented that there was no regime to monitor or inspect the network of pipes and no plan to rectify any damage, which showed how “reckless” the company had been. He added that there had been “significant” harm caused to flora within the area.

In mitigation, the court noted the company’s overall environmental record and set of values, that the company had accepted responsibility for the incident, and that it was not a commercially motivated offence.

Following the fine Severn Trent issued a statement apologising for the incident:

“We’re truly sorry for the impact the blockage in our sewer pipes had on Sutton Park.  “We worked closely with the Environment Agency, Natural England, English Heritage, and Birmingham City Council to clean up the affected area.

Monitoring of the area, carried out over a number of years by specialist environmental consultants, showed there was no long-term impact to the site, to wildlife or to the local pools and streams.

We’ve also been carrying out a review of our assets in and around the park to see if we can reduce the risk of pollution in the future.”

Emma Johnson, Natural England’s Area Manager for the West Midlands, said:

“There’s a lot of love for Sutton Park. It is used and enjoyed by many, it’s a prime site for wildlife and is part of the history of the West Midlands. The sewage spill incident caused by Severn Trent Water and the impact it had is amongst the worst damage to a SSSI that Natural England have witnessed.

It’s particularly disappointing as water companies should have technology and processes in place to prevent this type of spill from happening. Natural England have supported and worked closely with the Environment Agency and I hope that the outcome of this prosecution helps highlight the importance of protected sites and the need to look out for them.

Looking forward, I am hopeful that ourselves and the Environment Agency can work with Severn Trent Water to rectify the issues and restore the site to a healthy state, and prevent future spills.”

Marc Lidderth, Area Environment Manager for the Environment Agency said:

“This case demonstrates how partners work together to share information and advice to protect the environment. It also highlights the importance of reporting environmental damage or pollution quickly, and members of the public can do this by calling the Environment Agency Incident Hotline on 0800 807660.”

Comment

Since this incident, the Environment Agency has recognised an improvement in Severn Trent’s overall environmental compliance. The organisation was identified as an industry leading company in the Environment Agency’s Environmental Performance Assessment in 2017.

That assessment is a non-statutory tool for comparing performance between water and sewerage companies. Introduced in 2011, it uses measurable environmental indicators to compare performance, including permit compliance, number of pollution incidents and measures on sludge use/disposal. While Severn Trent has now been rated leading (along with Wessex Water and United Utilities), its main improvements come in performance indicators outside of the pollution measures; it was graded amber for the number of both total, and serious, pollution incidents. While progress is to be welcomed, the assessment itself should be read in context.

It also must be said, that this case also reveals the length of time some prosecutions can take. Despite pleading guilty, it took nearly 6 years from the date of the incident for Severn Trent to be sentenced.