Continuing Sewage Pollution of Beaches

Three articles from The Sunday Times of 3rd August 2008 spilling the beans on the fact that Britain’s beaches and rivers continue to be polluted by sewage from the many CSOs that have not been updated since their installation in Victorian times, despite far higher population discharges and greater resulting profits to the responsible water companies from higher charges.
CSO’ is an acronym for ‘Combined Sewer Overflow’. It is the ancient and outdated system of combining surface drainage rainwater and sewage inputs, a leftover from the Victorian days when such systems were considered benign and therefore acceptable. One of the reasons/excuses for privatising the water authorities was to provide capital to update these systems to cope with the increasing discharges of growing populations and now the advent of Global Warming bringing about heavier and more frequent rainfall.
When the flow is excessive, these systems are unable to cope and overflow, so many of these CSOs are increasingly discharging high amounts of untreated sewage to the sea, streams and rivers. This has led to faeces and other sewage-related materials being deposited on beach foreshores and in rivers. Aesthetic pollution results, as well as an increased health risk to those using the sea and rivers for recreation, and the ecology of the sea and rivers is similarly damaged due to microbiological contamination and reduced oxygen levels which, in turn, leads to fish kills. The many existing CSOs need to be replaced through the construction of new, separate sewers for rainwater (drainage) and foul water (sewage), thus ensuring that all sewage is treated before discharge.

1: Revealed: the beach polluters of Britain
2: Water industry free to poison beaches
3: Time to fight them on the beaches

1: Revealed: the beach polluters of Britain – The Sunday Times of 3rd August ’08

3,500 pipes pump sewage into sea – The water quality of Britain’s beaches is being jeopardised by thousands of unregulated overflow pipes that dump raw sewage into coastal waters and rivers, an investigation has revealed. The Sunday Times has obtained details of 3,500 overflow pipes operated by water companies that allow them to dump unlimited amounts of raw sewage in more than 80 rivers and along sections of the coast.

“There is no limit on the amount of sewage that can come out of these overflows,” said Thomas Bell, coastal pollution officer of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which has obtained details of the locations of the sewer pipes under freedom of information laws. “They represent a licence to pollute.”

Among the overflows are:

More than 60 operated by South West Water, including pipes on the River Torridge, which flows to a popular Devon beach.
More than 250 outlets operated by Yorkshire Water, including sewage flowing into the North Sea.
Sewage overflows on the River Don, where thousands of fish were killed by sewage pollution in 2006.
An overflow operated by United Utilities near Manchester, which was blamed for polluting a fishery in 2005.

The 3,500 sewage overflows were among more than 20,000 identified when the water industry was privatised. Most had environmental conditions imposed on them but these are still outstanding.

There are also about 500 regulated sewer overflows on Britain’s beaches that are supposed to operate only after heavy rain. Swimmers and surfers complain that these are operating more regularly to relieve pressure on sewage systems said to be “at bursting point”.

Despite a £10 billion investment programme by water companies since privatisation, about one in four beaches still fails to qualify for the European Union’s top category. The investment has ensured that 96% now meet the lower mandatory standard, but this still means that a swimmer has a 14% chance of contracting a bacterial or viral infection.

The MCS last week called for tighter controls and improved monitoring of sewer overflows. It said the Environment Agency had failed in its duty by not imposing strict environment conditions on the 3,500 sewage overflow pipes. The agency said that it had concentrated its resources on dealing with sewage overflows that had been the subject of complaints or had known problems. New restrictions were now being planned on the 3,500 overflows, it said.

The water industry says it is replacing many of the sewage overflows that cause problems and added that they are used only when necessary to expel sewage and flood water.
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2: Water industry free to poison beaches – From The Sunday Times 3rd August 2008

Unregulated overflow pipes allow companies to pour sewage onto Britain’s coastline

UK Bathing Sites – beaches where water quality has declined or only meets the EU basic standard

Environment Agency “deemed consents” – the list of sewage overflows with no environmental conditions

As you drive along the B3301 in north Cornwall, you come across the rocks and golden sands of Godrevy, overlooking St Ives Bay. It is among the finest beaches in Britain but on some days there is an unmistakable odour: sewage.

“You can smell it sometimes when you cross the Red River, which flows onto the beach,” said Richard Hardy, campaign director of Surfers Against Sewage. “Families sometimes play in the water without realising there is a serious risk of getting ill.”

About a mile upstream along the Red River is a sewage works where the overflow pipes are cut into the river banks. During heavy rain, flood waters and raw sewage surge out of the overflow pipes, down the Red River and on to Godrevy beach. To veteran users of the beach, there is usually one fail-safe indicator of a pollution incident: cotton buds. “Where there are cotton buds, there is sewage, because of the numbers that are flushed down toilets,” Hardy said. “We pick hundreds of them off the beach.” According to European Union water quality standards, Godrevy’s water enjoys high levels of cleanliness. However, only 20 tests are conducted during the bathing season and they often fail to detect the sporadic pollution from sewage overflows.

The case of Godrevy highlights a threat to the water industry’s £10 billion drive to improve the cleanliness of Britain’s beaches. There are hundreds of beaches around the country that, like Godrevy, might at times have raw sewage running across their sands because of the wetter weather and a sewage system “at bursting point”. While the water industry has been praised for improving the cleanliness of coastal waters – shutting most of the raw sewage outfalls off the coast – about one in four beaches still fails to qualify for the EU’s top category.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which produces the Good Beach Guide, wants to see stricter controls on sewage overflows which can still blight many of the country’s beaches. It has also discovered Britain has a network of about 3,500 sewage overflows operating on the country’s rivers and along some sections of coast without any environmental conditions. This means they can spew out unlimited amounts of sewage without risk of prosecution. The number of beaches recommended by MCS dropped by 10% last year. This is partly attributed to agricultural pollution, but also the overflow of sewage in wet weather. According to data compiled by the society, more than 100 beaches that have regulated sewage overflow outlets had declining water quality in 2007, compared with the previous year.

One of those beaches was Whitburn beach, Sunderland. Residents complain it is regularly blighted by sewage and related debris. The pipe that carries storm water and sewage out to sea is several hundred yards offshore but, it is claimed, pollution washes back to the beach. A local authority report of an incident last April reported 500 items of sewage debris strewn along the promenade and beach-front. Robert Latimer, 64, who lives on the seafront, said: “You get sewage everywhere. They were only meant to use this outfall 20 times a year, but sewage is coming out all the time.” Another beach that has seen its water quality decline is the shoreline at Instow, at the confluence of the River Torridge and the Taw estuary in north Devon. It was one of the few beaches to fail the legal minimum water quality standards last year.

Farming effluent is partly blamed for the decline, but the beach also has a sewage overflow. It may also be adversely affected by overflows from the Torridge. Data obtained by MCS reveals that the river has five sewage overflows that have no environmental limits on the amount of sewage they can discharge.

Britain’s unregulated sewer overflow pipes are predominantly on the river network and are a throwback to when the water industry was privatised in 1989. At that time, there were more than 20,000 sewage overflow outlets and they were granted “deemed consent” as an interim measure to ensure the assets of the new companies were lawful. It has now emerged that 3,500 of these sewage outlets are still operating without any environmental conditions. As well as the Torridge, rivers with unregulated sewage overflows include the Thames, the Cherwell in Oxfordshire, the Don in South Yorkshire and Calder in Lancashire. The Anglers’ Conservation Association (ACA) is also calling for tough legal restrictions to be placed on these overflows.

Since The Sunday Times’s Water Rats campaign highlighted the devastating impact of river pollution at the time of water privatisation, water quality in rivers has significantly improved, partly because of improved environmental practices, but also because of the decline of heavy industry. However, the unregulated sewage overflows in effect mean water companies can pollute watercourses without risk of prosecution. The ACA says a pollution leak in June 2005 when hundreds of fish were killed by sewage in a river near Manchester was never pursued in the courts because the overflow operated by United Utilities was one of those with “deemed consent”.

United Utilities was unable to trace details of the pollution incident this weekend, but the Environment Agency said the fact the overflow had deemed consent was just one of the reasons a prosecution was not pursued. In a similar leak, in the summer of 2006, fish on the River Don were described as jumping out of the water “gasping for breath” and thousands were killed. The overflows operated by Yorkshire Water were also subsequently discovered to have deemed consent and there was no prosecution.

The ACA says the Environment Agency is failing adequately to tackle the water industry over pollution. In a submission to the agency, it has warned that pollution from overflows had led to a “reduction in fish” and the routine sight of “physical residue of sewage discharges hanging on bankside vegetation”. The agency said this weekend that the overflows with deemed consents were not considered to be causing serious pollution, but new restrictions would be imposed on them. Chris Chubb, discharge consents policy manager for the agency, said overflow pipes were being replaced or improved where possible.
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3: Time to fight them on the beaches – From The Sunday Times 3rd August ’08

Water companies must be stopped from pumping sewage into the sea – Britain’s coastline is one of its abiding glories. The sea has played a central role in our history and has a tight grip on the nation’s imagination. Nowhere in the UK is more than 72 miles from the ocean and at some stage everyone has felt compelled to go down to the sea and even occasionally plunge into it.

Yet despite this fascination we treat our coastal waters with scant respect. Thirty years ago this newspaper campaigned to clean up our beaches, leading to a law to stop the dumping of garbage from ships. Twenty years ago we highlighted our polluted rivers in the river rats campaign. However, as we report today, the water companies are still pumping large amounts of raw sewage into rivers and the sea despite spending £10 billion on infrastructure since privatisation. One in four beaches fails to quality for the European Union’s top category and hundreds of people contract diseases every year from swimming in polluted waters. Children are playing in streams on beaches in which raw sewage flows into the sea.

Many believed that the much publicised expenditure on improved sewage treatment, which led to higher water bills, had solved the problem. This is clearly not so. Even the coveted blue flag status of beaches is no insurance against illness; it is quite possible to discharge sewage onto these beaches and for it not to be discovered by random testing.

True, there has been a steady clean-up in the past 20 years and the levels of pollution are much better than they were. But that was from a shockingly low base. Britain used to treat coastal waters as an unfiltered national U-bend and paid little attention to the sewage flowing into the sea. Even a polio outbreak in the 1950s was not enough to convince the government to take action.

In part we can thank the European Union for imposing better standards. In 1976 limits were set on faecal coliforms in “designated bathing waters”, which now number more than 500. This means they are monitored but it does not stop many other beaches from being positively hazardous.

Surfers and swimmers are three times more likely to contract hepatitis A and there is a 14% risk of contracting a gastrointestinal illness in minimum standard European designated water. Sometimes the risk can be up to 5% for every swim. As The Sunday Times Magazine said last year, “imagine that strawberry yoghurt carried a 5% risk of diarrhoea and vomiting. It would be off the shelves before you could say ‘Food Standards Agency’.”

Instead we show a remarkably cavalier attitude to this risk. The Environment Agency, under pressure from the Marine Conservation Society, has admitted there are still 3,500 overflow outlets that frequently pump raw sewage into the sea. These are not monitored and there have been no prosecutions. Even when the agency has prosecuted the water companies for illegal dumping from other registered outlets, the fines have been minimal. There is no deterrent to the companies to continue to save money by pumping sewage into the sea and damning the consequences.

This is clearly a case for decisive action. More people are using our coastal waters than at any time in the past and they have a right to demand higher standards of cleanliness. No one, not even water company executives, wants to swim or surf through raw sewage. It is time for the government and concerned members of parliament to take decisive action. They should start by demanding that the water companies stop this pollution. They could then urge the Environment Agency to get tough and give it greater powers to impose massive fines. Punitive measures may be the only effective means of stopping this violation of our national heritage.


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