Last reviewed 22 November 2021

The Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat have launched a major investigation into sewage treatment works after new checks led to water companies admitting that unpermitted raw sewage could have been discharged into rivers and watercourses.

The investigation follows earlier revelations by the regulators that water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year. A more recent check revealed many sewage treatment works, which are meant to control raw sewage discharges, may not even be compliant with the regulations.

Announcing the new investigation, Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, said: “Only now, just before new monitors are installed, have companies reported concerns over potential problems. The EA has begun an immediate investigation of more than 2,000 sewage treatment works and will prosecute where necessary.”

The EA, working with Ofwat, will now look into all water and sewerage companies to assess the scale of the problem. Any company caught breaching these minimum standards will face a range of possible enforcement action — up to and including prosecution.

Jonson Cox, Chair of Ofwat, said: “Customers pay water companies to treat wastewater and protect and enhance rivers and wildlife. The public will be extremely disappointed if these reports are confirmed. Ofwat takes any reports of water companies breaking the law very seriously.”

The Environment Act introduces clear new duties to legally require water companies to make progressive reductions in the adverse impacts of storm overflows. Companies not abiding by their permits are also expected to take immediate action to urgently address any non-compliance while these investigations are ongoing.

Thames Water is the latest company to be prosecuted for illegally dumping raw sewage into local rivers. The company, which has been fined for similar offences on several previous occasions, was fined £4 million on Friday and ordered to pay the prosecution costs in the sum of £90,713 for discharging an estimated half a million litres of raw sewage into the Seacourt and Hinksey streams in Oxford.