Raw sewage ‘cover-up’ at Windermere World Heritage Site

Water companies can make sewage pollution disappear from the official figures.

Leaked records suggest one firm, United Utilities, wrongly downgraded dozens of pollution events, including at a famed English lake in north-west England.

The Environment Agency signed off all the downgrades without attending any of the incidents.

United Utilities denies misreporting pollution.

The Liberal Democrats have called for a criminal investigation to be opened, based on the BBC’s findings, while Labour’s shadow environment secretary Steve Reed has accused the Government of turning “a blind eye to corruption at the heart of the water industry”.

The Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has said that the volume of sewage being discharged into English waters is “utterly unacceptable”.

Water companies in England are set environmental targets by the regulator, Ofwat. One of the key benchmarks is the number of pollution incidents per 10,000km of sewer. These are typically sewage discharges into rivers or the sea, caused by blockages or equipment failure.

The companies have to pay fines if they exceed a given number of pollution incidents, and are given financial rewards if they come in below.

Raw sewage mixing with clean clear water in the river Kent in Kendal, Cumbria, UK.IMAGE SOURCE,ASHLEY COOPER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption,

Raw sewage mixing with clean clear water

According to the Environment Agency’s figures, United Utilities was the best performing company in England in 2022. It recorded just 126 pollution incidents, or 16/10,000km of sewer.

As a reward for this good performance, the company will be allowed to raise £5.1m by increasing bills for its seven million customers next year.

But whistleblowers at the Environment Agency claim the company has been wrongly downgrading pollution incidents and that the agency is failing to conduct independent checks.

One insider told Panorama that United Utilities was “controlling the evidence” on pollution.

When pollution incidents are reported to the Environment Agency, it assesses the potential impact and decides whether to attend.

From 2020 through to the end of 2022, there were 931 reported water company pollution incidents in north-west England, and the Environment Agency only attended six.

“If they [United Utilities] say attend – which is incredibly rare – we’ll attend,” said the whistleblower. “If they say don’t attend, we don’t attend. They’re effectively regulating themselves.”

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