Water Industry News

South West Water Parasite Compensation Bill Could Hit £3.4 Million

Earlier this month (May), it emerged that water supplies in Brixham in Devon had been contaminated with the cryptosporidium parasite, which can cause diarrhoea and vomiting, with symptoms potentially lasting for between two and three weeks.


On May 15th, utility company South West Water announced that it had found traces of the parasite in the Hillhead area of the local water network, issuing a boil water notice to some 16,000 properties in the region, advising them not to use tap water for washing or drinking without boiling it and allowing it to cool beforehand.


The firm has been working alongside the UK Health Security Agency and public health partners to investigate how cryptosporidium made its way into the system, with two bottled water collection points set up in Paignton and Brixham.


At the time, chief customer and digital officer Laura Flowerdew said: “We sincerely apologise for the impact this is having on our customers in the Brixham and Alston areas.


“Protecting the health of our customers and providing them with a clean, fresh drinking water supply is our number one priority and we will continue to work around the clock to make sure that happens as soon as possible.”


Cryptosporidiosis can be contracted through drinking unprotected or contaminated water, or by swallowing it in recreational waters like lakes, rivers, streams and swimming pools.


It typically takes a week or thereabouts for symptoms such as loss of appetite, fever, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and watery diarrhoea to manifest but in some cases it can take between one and 12 days. These symptoms usually last two weeks, sometimes longer, leading to dehydration and weight loss.


As compensation, South West Water initially offered those affected £15, but later announced that they would be increasing the amount to £100. However, this has now been increased to £215 for domestic customers, according to the BBC, with many still having to boil their drinking and washing water.


If all eligible customers come forward to claim compensation, the Pennon Group – owner of South West Water – the bill would come to an impressive £3.44 million.


Group chief executive Susan Davy said that normal service has now been resumed for 85 per cent of customers in the affected areas, but work will not stop until local drinking water supplies return to the quality expected.


She went on to say: “We are 100 per cent focused on returning a safe water supply to the people and businesses in and around Brixham. Our absolute priority continues to be the health and safety of our customers and our operational teams are working tirelessly around the clock to deliver this.”


Network upgrades


Although an investigation is still ongoing to determine the cause of the outbreak, South West Water has confirmed that a damaged valve on the network has been identified as a possible entry point for the parasite.


Aside from wanton disregard for the natural environment shown by water suppliers in terms of pollution and sewage discharges into waterways, part of the problem that the UK faces is the fact that its infrastructure and network is so old that it’s no longer fit for purpose, with much of it dating back to Victorian times.


This is now the focus of a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, assessing actions to mitigate the risks to public health posed by the use of public waters contaminated by faecal matter from human waste.


The investigation looked into the role that wastewater infrastructure has to play in permitting primarily human faecal organisms to enter waterways through storm overflows and treated effluent discharge, rather than agricultural runoff from wild animals, livestock and septic tanks.


Wastewater treatment plants work to reduce the concentration of these organisms, but despite this the continuous discharge of treated effluent into open water is still a source of high organism levels.


It was acknowledged that there is currently insufficient evidence to show a direct causal link between specific discharges and specific health incidents, but there still exists a known public health risk from exposure to high concentrations of these organisms.


One contributing factor is the rise in water-based recreational activities around the UK, both coastal and inland, which has increased public exposure to pollutants.


Furthermore, heightened public awareness of water quality and greater amounts of data available has increased scrutiny over water standards and driven a revelation of public acceptability of the risks involved.


Commenting on the findings, professor David Butler – chair of the National Engineering Policy Centre working group on wastewater – said: “Our vision for the UK’s future wastewater system is one that ensures the right balance of human health, environmental protection, and economic sustainability.


“But first we need a strong evidence base to understand and measure public health risks accurately. Such a foundation is essential to inform regulations, standards, and policies, enabling a united effort by governments, regulators, and water companies to mitigate health risks and ensure the safety of open waters for everyone.


“Growing urbanisation and forecasts for more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change will mean increasing pressure is put on our ageing wastewater system. Policymakers and industry should carefully consider the actions we have outlined here and their implications in future wastewater infrastructure projects.”


In the immediate term, the report is calling for service providers to prioritise asset maintenance, the introduction of regulatory frameworks to enforce resilience, environmental monitoring, a review of bathing water regulations, better overflow management, a reduction in urban runoff, an evaluation of disinfection processes and better public engagement.


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