Last reviewed 8 January 2019
On 23 November 2018, the Environment Agency (EA) announced that it had accepted an offer from Wessex Water to pay a record £975,000 to achieve equivalent environmental benefits following sewage spills on the Dorset coast. The company also offered £25,000 compensation to the RNLI, taking the total payment to £1 million.
The EA said that Wessex Water was owner and operator of a sewage treatment works near Swanage Bay, Dorset. Between 2016 and 2017, a series of sewage spillages occurred, where an estimated 142,000m3 of sewage was discharged into the sea.
The treatment works’ permit allowed for discharges from three separate outfalls. Discharges should only occur when flows exceed limits specified in the permit. Swanage Sewage Treatment Works had previously operated to a high standard, but it had deteriorated around the time of the discharges, resulting in a loss in storage capacity. Following a storm on 1 August 2016, extra flows entered the works. As there was nowhere to store the incoming flows, it resulted in unconsented discharges leaking into Swanage Bay. Wessex Water failed to report the discharges until three days later.
One of the sewage spills was witnessed by a local RNLI lifeboat crew who sailed through a plume of raw sewage off Peverill Point on 1 August 2016. They subsequently complained to Wessex Water and the local authority. Another sewage spillage happened during the 2016 Swanage carnival weekend. On 5 August 2016, the continuing discharges prompted the local council to erect warning signs on Swanage beach.
Swanage Sewage Treatment Works now operates in compliance with its permit and has been since April 2018.
Wessex Water admitted failing to comply with the site’s environmental permit on various dates between 31 July 2016 and 3 August 2017. They subsequently offered the following:
£400,000 towards a local authority flood defence scheme in Swanage. Swanage town centre lies within a flood risk zone, where temporary defences are deployed to help protect local businesses and properties. The contribution offered by Wessex Water will improve the level of flood protection in the town, thereby benefiting local residents and businesses.
£400,000 to Dorset Waste Partnership to fund the development of a doorstep recycling service for domestic fat, oil and grease. The money will be used to help determine the facilities needed for the service and fund additional resources to assist with recycling.
£100,000 towards the Dorset Litter Free Coast and Sea Project.
£75,000 to the Durlston Country Park and Nature Reserve. The donation will enable the provision of equipment for animal surveys and raise awareness and promote management of the rich local environment.
The company also offered £25,000 compensation to Swanage RNLI Lifeboat Station as an impacted third party, taking the total payout to £1 million. The package is the highest ever accepted in England.
After consideration, the EA accepted Wessex Water’s enforcement undertaking on the basis that the company had accepted breaching the legislation, and payments totalling £975,000 would secure improvements to the environment including flood defence and measures to tackle fats, oil and grease — which can cause pollution to rivers and coastal waters if poured down the sink. Mark Sitton-Kent from the EA said:
When water companies damage the environment by illegally polluting water the Environment Agency will take tough enforcement action against them including civil sanctions.
This record pay-out will secure a range of environmental improvements for the local community, tourism and future water quality.
An Enforcement Undertaking is part of a legal agreement which is a form of Civil Sanction. It requires a company or individual offering to put right what went wrong and compensate people and the environment. Prior to this enforcement undertaking, the previous highest was £650,752 paid by Costcutter Supermarkets Group Limited to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) charity in 2017 for offences under the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007. The highest previous financial contribution from a water company was £375,000 paid by Northumbrian Water Limited in relation to pollution incidents from one of its sewage pumping stations between 2015 and 2016, which was formally accepted in December 2016.
The EA has previously accepted four other enforcement undertakings from Wessex Water, the highest of which was £200,000 for an enforcement undertaking relating to Wick St Lawrence, Somerset. The money was split between a number of charities and organisations to help fund environmental projects.
It seems that the EA are increasingly willing to accept enforcement undertakings. The important features seem to be whether there is the intention to rectify the damage caused by polluting incidents and the ability of the company to pay. As such, even with large scale polluting incidents following inappropriate waste management, companies should be mindful of their ability to offer enforcement undertakings.