MARINET member explains storm sewage problem at Whitburn

We record here the experience of a former MARINET member, Bob Latimer, who lives at Whitburn, near Sunderland. He explains how Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are being used by his water company (Northumbrian Water), with the consent of the Environment Agency, in order to avoid the building of properly sized rainwater and foul water sewers, and adequate sewage treatment works. The result is serious pollution of the beach and sea at Whitburn.

Robert Latimer explains how combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are causing a serious pollution problem on the beach and in the sea at Whitburn, near Sunderland. Normally rain water from roads and paved areas is collected by a separate sewer from the one which collects sewage and foul water. This means that when heavy rain occurs the rainwater sewer can store the storm water and, if necessary, overflow into a river or the sea without causing serious pollution. However, in many places, the rainwater and foul sewers are combined which means that when heavy rain occurs and an overflow is required, the combined sewer overflow into the river or sea causes serious pollution. Water Companies, under their capital investment programmes funded by increased annual water charges, are meant to be eliminating the practice of combined sewers.

Robert Latimer writes : “This is a short explanation of how a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) licence operates, and how I became involved in trying to find out what was being dumped in the sea.

“Out of the blue I was approached by Northumbrian Water (NWL), and they explained that due to an EU Directive they had to build a storm water pumping station next to our property (within 15meters) at Whitburn. They explained that I had no need to worry as it would only operate in severe weather conditions and would only discharge storm water, at most, 20 times a year. In fact they told me it was a waste of EU money and was really not needed. I went along with what they said, being reassured that for 99% of the time nothing would be going down the pipes. I had no reason to doubt what they were saying, and so I did not object to the project.

Photo of pollution at Whitburn

Pollution at Whitburn – Photo 1

“When the pumping station came into operation I quickly found that it was not discharging storm water, it was discharging foul sewage. So much so that in the year 2000 the Environment Agency (EA) records show that it had discharged over 1,207,000 cubic metres. In other words, over one million more cubic metres than had been estimated in the consent (licence). In fact it was discharging every day, even when there was no rain let alone a storm.

Photo of pollution at WHitburn

Pollution at Whitburn – Photo 2

“I brought this to the attention of the Environment Agency who reluctantly agreed that the discharges were breaching the licence conditions. This resulted in Northumbrian Water Ltd having to apply to the EA to amend the licence. I opposed the amendment asking the Secretary of State to call in the application which she did, resulting in a Public Inquiry.

“It was at this point that the EA showed their real colours employing a barrister to have the scope of the Inquiry reduced. This resulted in the Inquiry being a mere whitewash, failing to investigate the real reasons why so much foul water was being discharged, and allowing the EA to issue a new consent to Northumbrian Water which allowed more to be discharged in one day under certain conditions than the old consent and the Environment Agency had said originally would be discharged in a year.

Notification of Pollution on Sunderland Coast - Sunderland District Council

“The real reason I mention this is because I believe Whitburn cannot be unique. I do not believe that the Whitburn CSO is a one off, but rather shows how these CSOs are out of control, with more sewage being discharged from them than is being treated through the treatment works. Furthermore the Environment Agency, the very people who you think will protect you, are allowing it.

“But last night (31st July 2008) was different. We had a storm. The EA say it was ‘severe rainfall,’ the very conditions Whitburn was built to handle – I enclose the photographs to show what took place . . . manholes blown off, flaps on the beach bursting open, sewage debris hanging out off manholes, tarmac ripped up, the very situation Whitburn Storm system should take in its stride. The CSO tunnel has a 14,000 cu metre capacity for storing storm flows, yet it failed miserably as you can see by the photos.

“I ask all Marinet members to request, from the Environment Agency, copies of the discharge records from these so-called CSOs in their areas, and let us compare.

“The phone started ringing at 7am this morning, people contacting me, rather than the Environment Agency, about the sewage on the beach. I contacted the EA by email – “You can see the sewage debris trapped in the lid of this manhole showing that the pumps had not stopped pumping forward to St Peters which was already discharging into the river, – I asked the EA why is this taking place?

“This was the EA reply – “I refer back to previous correspondence in which we have made it clear that we will not enter into any further discussion with you on matters relating to the Sunderland sewerage and sewage treatment system””

An additional comment on this situation is provided by Eddy Moore, a MARINET member who lives on the coast at Hendon, near Sunderland.

Eddy Moore writes: “I would like to add to Bob Latimer’s comments regarding Whitburn and the functioning of the CSOs. I live at Hendon, south of Sunderland. I would like to give my account about Sunderland and its sewage system which we have been told is a ‘State of the Art System’, costing £70 million. In reality my observations, supported by complaints logged with the Environment Agency, have shown that time after time sewage debris is coming ashore in a manner worse than under the old system, and this has persisted since the new ‘State of the Art’ system was commissioned 8 years ago.

“Recently, after raising some questions with Northumbria Water and the Environment Agency and some protracted correspondence with them, it has been admitted that Northumbria Water are having to spend a further £8,157,049 on the combined sewer overflow system at the Sewage Treatment Works. This situation now is that Northumbria Water is fitting further screens to remove the sewage debris and this work is housed in a large new extension building. It appears that the company is also digging up what seems to be the whole overflow part of the system.

“It is my belief that it is my actions that have brought about this modification. I have fought for this for 12 years, whilst the Environment Agency has sat back and done nothing but hinder me, and now the EA wants to charge me £600 for information that proves it has been negligent. As Bob Latimer has observed, when we exposed the pollution that is occurring and managed to get a Public Inquiry, the Environment Agency employed a barrister to have the scope of the Inquiry reduced so that it did not investigate the combined sewer overflow (CSO) situation.

“I believe that MARINET members and the public must take up this issue regarding screening and the operations of these CSOs otherwise the life in our seas locally will be lost altogether. I ask for all members to help expose what is going on.”

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