New Water Pollution Fines Criticised As “Hot Air”
The government’s newly announced plans to increase the amount that water suppliers can be fined in civil court cases for pollution incidents may appear at first glance like a positive move in the right direction, rising from £250,000 to £250 million, it seems that it may not go far enough, with some critics describing the decision as nothing but “hot air”.
A Guardian investigation has revealed that the Environment Agency hasn’t levied any financial penalties against utility companies for water pollution incidents since the regulator was afforded the powers to be able to do so 12 years ago.
This month (October), environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena announced that the cap on variable monetary penalties (VMPs) would be increased 1,000-fold. These VMPs were brought in back in 2010 to allow the Environment Agency to levy fines for serious incidents without having to pursue time-consuming and expensive criminal court proceedings.
Thus far, the agency hasn’t levied a single VMP… yet Mr Jayawardena believes that these bigger penalties will serve as a “greater deterrent and push water companies to do more and faster when it comes to investing in infrastructure and improving the quality of our water”. He went on to add that “the polluter must pay”.
Ash Smith, founder of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, criticised the announcement, saying that it was “more hot air” from a government that could stop pollution from being profitable “very easily”, one that “simply refuses to do so and [which] passed an Environment Act that allows illegal pollution to continue”.
It certainly does seem to be the case that the Environment Agency is not currently in the best position to back up the announcement, with deep budget cuts having a serious impact on its environmental protection activities.
Lack of funding has meant that the regulator has been forced to scale back its water quality monitoring programme, with 93 per cent of prosecutions downgraded for pollution over four years.
Recent research from the Environmental Audit Committee revealed that just 14 per cent of rivers in England are currently classified as having good ecological status.
The government is also not on track to ensure that all rivers in the country achieve good status by 2027, a requirement under the Water Framework Directive (which has now been transposed into UK law).
Assessing the health of the water environment involves carrying out water flow, habitat and biological quality tests. Failing to meet just one of these tests means the entire body of water fails to achieve good ecological status.
Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, explained that water quality in rivers across England is “flatlining”, because the water industry and agricultural sector – the two biggest polluters – are not currently taking sufficient action to protect and enhance the natural environment.
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