On 12 September 2019, Leicester Magistrates’ Court fined Anglian Water £146,000 and ordered it to pay £10,676 in costs for polluting a Northamptonshire brook with sewage.
The Court heard that over the course of 2 days in August 2016, at least a kilometre and a half of Grendon Brook was contaminated with sewage from the nearby Yardley Hastings sewage plant, managed by Anglian Water. The pollution was originally reported on 24 August, but no action was taken, and the company stated that there was no record of the report being made. The pollution continued intermittently for two days until it was noticed and stopped on 26 August. Environment Agency officers conducted tests which showed that the levels of ammonia were 20 times higher downstream, which were enough to be extremely toxic to fish, invertebrates and other aquatic life.
The Court was told that the pumping station, which takes raw sewage and transfers it to the main site for treatment, suffered multiple failures. The pumps had become air-locked and stopped working, which caused sewage to back up in the storage tank. This then filled and was discharged into the nearby brook. On the day of the incident, an alarm triggered to indicate that there was no flow from the pumping station to the main sewage works, however it was turned off without further investigation. Other alarms which ought to have alerted staff to the incident failed to sound. Had the initial earlier report been acted on, the pollution could have been stopped sooner.
Investigations found that a lack of maintenance caused the faults with the system. While Anglian Water had undertaken three maintenance visits, they had no records of the affected parts being cleaned or maintained in the year prior to the incident.
The company’s environmental permit only allowed the sewage plant to discharge into the brook in storm conditions or in an emergency, neither of which were relevant at the time of the incident. As a further requirement of their permit, Anglian Water were also obliged to maintain a 24-hour alarm system in case the pumping station failed, and a separate alarm which would alert staff when the emergency sewage storage tank overflowed into the watercourse. However, the company only installed this second alarm in October 2016, which was after the incident and 20 years after being required to do so by the permit.
Anglian Water pleaded guilty to breaching the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 and the Water Resources Act 1991. The Magistrates fined the company £146,000 and ordered it to pay £10,676 in costs.
In mitigation, the Court was told that Anglian Water self-reported the pollution to the Environment Agency and had cooperated with the Agency’s investigation. It also heard that there was no evidence of dead fish or invertebrates in the stretch of brook affected by pollution.
After the case, the Environment Agency officer in charge of the investigation said:
“Earlier this year, we pledged a tougher approach towards water companies that don’t live up to their environmental responsibilities, and this case proves that we will hold them to account when they pollute the natural environment.
It’s our job as a regulator to protect people and wildlife, and we will take action when they’re put at risk.”
The remarkable feature of this case is the comparatively high fine issued, considering that there was no evidence of harm to wildlife as a result of the pollution. The sentence can be seen to accurately reflect the comments made by the investigating officer after the case. It further indicates that the courts, alongside the prosecution, are also adopting a robust approach to pollution cases, irrespective of harm or damage done.
Additionally, the case serves as an important reminder of the need for sound record-keeping. While Anglian Water had claimed to have undertaken maintenance visits, they were unable to provide the evidence that the affected parts of the pumping station had been checked. By implication, therefore, the parts appear to have not been maintained. It is crucial for all waste managers to ensure that maintenance records are completed at the time of the inspection and retained in case needed for future evidence.
The case also comes at the same time as the release of the latest water company performance reports, which assess water companies’ environmental performance in 2018. At the start of the report, the Environment Agency Chair considered that performance ‘was simply unacceptable’, noting that only one company met the standard of industry leading required by the Agency, and that most companies’ performance had deteriorated. Anglian Water was graded 3 out of 4 stars, meaning it requires improvement in order to reduce its environmental impact. As a result, the Chair notes, they are to toughen their regulatory approach. The level of fines in this case should therefore be considered to be the norm in the future.