Last reviewed 11 January 2022

A briefing from the Environment Agency (EA) has told staff to ignore reports of low-impact pollution events, according to a briefing leaked to the media.

The briefing, leaked to the Guardian Newspaper and ENDS, says there is leadership support for “no response to unfunded low- and no-impact environmental incidents”, generally referred to as category 3 and 4 incidents.

Low impact river incidents relate to events such as leaching from unsecured bunding from business premisses or farm slurry seepage, or fly-tipped river dumping etc, which may be less toxic than categories 1 and 2 incidents, but which can still harm fish and other marine life.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust, referred to the briefing as an “appalling scandal”. “Category 1 and 2 pollution incidents obviously have a very serious impact on the environment, but they are the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of incidents are in lower categories, and they are what cause the death of rivers by a thousand cuts,” he said.

In a Foreword to its latest Annual Report 2020–2021, Environment Agency Chair, Emma Howard Boyd stated: “While we have seen significant improvements in water quality over the last twenty years, the bottom line is England’s rivers are too polluted and this mainly comes from agriculture, water companies and urban environments”.

The EA Chair also wrote to Environment Secretary George Eustice earlier, warning that funding cuts meant tackling England’s pollution incidents is “significantly reduced”. The EA briefing argues that ignoring high numbers of low-level pollution incidents will have benefits, including “reduced overall effort spent on the incidents that present the lowest risk to the environment”.

An EA spokesperson told the Guardian: “We focus our incident response effort on those pollution incidents which pose the greatest risk to the environment.”

Clean Rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey described the EA decision as “cynical”. Speaking to the Guardian he said: “the obscenity is that the Environment Agency has reduced its own staff to nothing more than political pawns in a cheap game of Whitehall politics. It’s unwarranted, it’s unjust, it’s incompetent”.

To report an environmental incident, contact the Environment Agency hotline here.