Why Was Raw Sewage Dumped Into Lake Windermere?
One of the biggest topics in British water infrastructure was the revelation of significant levels of illegal raw sewage dumping taking place, including near clean water areas and heritage sites. The end of the year brought one more twist to this story.
According to a report produced as part of an investigation by BBC’s Panorama, water companies can and have incorrectly downgraded the severity of pollution events, signed off by the Environment Agency and leading to inaccurate environment ratings for some water companies.
The implications of this for businesses that rely on water companies to be accurate in a bid to justify their bills are hugely significant and add to an ongoing criminal investigation by Defra regarding inadequate water compliance by water companies.
The most shocking revelation is how an hours-long raw sewage dumping incident into Lake Windermere was not accurately reported, and by understanding this situation, the rest of the Panorama investigation becomes more understandable.
Sewage In The Lake District
The main focus of the Panorama investigation centred around United Utilities, although they are only one of many water companies subject to investigation.
In June 2022, a fault in UU’s sewage management infrastructure meant that for over three hours, raw sewage was being dumped into the middle of a World Heritage Site in Lake Windermere.
This situation was initially reported as a category 2 incident on the EA’s four-stage classification scale, indicating a serious event that required investigation but was downgraded to a category 4 event, which does not show on the EA’s published statistics due to the belief they have no environmental impact.
According to the EA in a response to the Panorama documentary, it is common for incidents to receive more severe classifications that are later downgraded when more information or a formal investigation is made.
However, in this case, anonymous whistleblowers who spoke to Panorama claimed that the event should not have been downgraded and that investigators should have attended, but ultimately did not, even though UU’s director of wastewater treatment later admitted that sewage ended up in Windermere.
They initially denied this had happened and would maintain that the pollution had no impact according to shoreline tests.
However, this is one of 60 cases Panorama claimed was wrongly downgraded, leading to the EA not conducting investigations and allegedly allowing water companies to effectively self-regulate, according to the whistleblowers who spoke to the BBC on conduction of anonymity.
This has led to allegations of a cover-up, but why did it happen, and why did it require intense investigative journalism for it to reach the light of day?
Ofwat is the regulator of water companies in the United Kingdom, and they set strict benchmarks and targets for water companies to meet. Failure means significant fines, and success allows companies to increase the bills to customers.
In 2022, United Utilities recorded 126 pollution incidents (times when sewage discharges into rivers, seas or other water courses) in total, which with a rating of 16 incidents per 10,000km of sewer in England made it the best-performing company of the year.
Their reward was that they could increase the water bills for the customers in United Utilities’ region and raise over £5m in the process.
The problem is that if the 60 cases Panorama identified were given what is claimed to be the correct categorisation, that would have increased their total incidents per 10,000km beyond the acceptable target and would not have led to this windfall.
This highlights one of several motivations for companies to misreport, as there is a direct financial incentive to reduce the number of reported pollution incidents, and outside of the consequences of potentially getting caught, the most economical way to lower this number is misrepresentation.
United Utilities themselves categorically deny this, as does the Environmental Agency, who note that individual companies do not have the authority to set incident categories or downgrade them themselves.
Any misreporting with evidence, according to the EA, will be investigated and perpetrators prosecuted.
It is also important to note that the events in question happened before the removal of the penalty cap and the expanded scope and scale of investigations were announced in 2023, which the Government claims will “hold polluters accountable” for any damage they caused to the environment.
How this will change going into 2024 remains to be seen, but with increased scrutiny and added scope to investigate wrongdoing, the aim will be to restore trust in water infrastructure and ensure that sewage is not regularly dumped into Britain’s beautiful watercourses.