Governance Failure: Environment Agency
The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing environmental regulations.
The Shropshire Star reports calls being made to Shropshire Council to help clean up the county’s rivers by putting pressure on Severn Trent to mitigate the impact of sewage pollution. The problem is combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Water companies are permitted to discharge both sewage and rainwater in periods of heavy rain, this results in untreated human waste, condoms, sanity towels, wipes and cleaning products entering our rivers.
The Oxford Mail reported (10.01.2022) that sewage has been ‘released’ into Witney river for 16 days. “Over the Christmas period sewage discharges from the works resulting in a Boxing Day swim downstream in Wolvercote being cancelled.” ..There are plans for a protest on Port Meadow on January 23 to put pressure on Thames Water to invest in improved infrastructure.”
“A Thames Water spokesperson said at the time: “We are very sorry to those people who have been unable to swim following sewage discharges, which have been due to our treatment works being at full capacity following heavy rainfall over the Christmas period and more recently. These weather events can result in more groundwater entering our sewer network in the area and while unacceptable to us, discharges are sometimes necessary and permitted to prevent flooding to homes, gardens, streets and open spaces.”
The Oxford Mail reported that “The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Environment Agency staff respond to pollution incidents 24/7 to contain pollution and protect water quality.
As the UK continues to rely on Victorian infrastructure, fails to invest in our sewerage and wastewater treatment and receives heavier rainfall there will be more pollution incidents.
On January 10 the Guardian reported that “England’s Environment Agency has told its staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events because it does not have enough money to investigate them, according to a leaked internal report. The ruling on so-called category 3 and 4 incidents means that events such as farm pollution or hazardous dumps by business may not be properly investigated. The decision has infuriated river groups and NGOs.
An Environment Agency briefing to staff, issued in November and seen by the Guardian and the Ends Report, says there is leadership support for “no response to unfunded low- and no-impact environmental incidents”, also known as category 3 and 4 incidents…. the EA’s leadership team has “made it clear to government that you get the environment you pay for”.
“Exceptions to the rule will be pollution incidents caused by a regulated site or a water company, says the briefing, although it does not explain how it will determine the source or seriousness of an incident if it is not attended or investigated. Ignoring the huge number of pollution reports that come in each year will have benefits, says the agency’s briefing, including “reduced overall effort spent on the incidents that present the lowest risk to the environment”, increased effort on “charge-funded regulation”, more space to prioritise higher-risk incidents, “increased consistency of response and service for customers”, and reduced disruption to officers in and out of hours.”
“..data from the agency’s National Incident Recording System shows that while 116,000 potential incidents were reported to the agency in 2021, just 8,000 were attended, and that this number had fallen from 12,000 in 2016, when 74,000 potential incidents were reported.”
“We cannot keep trying to do what we are not funded to do; we do not have the money or resources,” states the presentation deck. “We are in an unsustainable position. Our incident responders feel under growing pressure, and this is affecting staff resilience and wellbeing.
Mark Lloyd, the chief executive of the Rivers Trust, called the move 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.
The government now frequently responds to challenges by presenting a large figure, either to prevent absolute expenditure or an increase.
On this occasion “A Defra spokesperson said: “The government recognises the importance of protecting the nation’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly.
“Defra and its agencies received an additional £4.3bn in the latest spending review in October 2022 so we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. The Environment Agency plays a hugely significant role in this area and will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental harm to account.”
The issue was Environment Agency funding – the Defra response does not address that
EA’s accounts show that funding fell from £157.3m in 2010 to £75.6m last year. That fact clearly contradicts the bold statement: “hugely significant role in this area and will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental harm to account.” They cannot if underfunded.
The House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee has reported on Water quality in rivers
They report that agriculture and water companies are the biggest contributors to this “chemical cocktail”.
“Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality,” Environmental Audit Committee chairman and MP Philip Dunne said.
“For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.”