Anglers Against Pollution

BBC Panorama exposes cheating on pollution reporting and a toothless regulator that does nothing

The BBC Panorama programme, The Water Pollution Cover-Up, highlights the complete failure of both United Utilities and the Environment Agency to protect our rivers, lakes, and sea from pollution.

This is not simply a case of poor management, incompetence, or lack of funding. What the programme exposes is what seems to be a deliberate attempt by United Utilities to cover up pollution incidents, and a regulator, the Environment Agency, complicit in that cover up.

United Utilities supplies water and treats wastewater for customers in the northwest of England. It is meant to be one of the best performing water companies when it comes to pollution. Yet, last year it spilled untreated sewage for 425,000 hours. – across all water companies, a total of 1.7 million hours of spills took place.

So why is United Utilities meant to be so good?

One reason is the way the Environment Agency assess compliance of sewage works. They only require the water companies to produce data on the treated water they discharge, and should there be no flow of treated water from the sewage works at the time of monitoring, that is recorded as a pass. United Utilities recorded 197 tests as being “no flow”.

But should these be recorded as a pass?

We don’t think so. We believe they should be recorded as “no result” and it shows that allowing water companies to “mark their own homework” is a complete failure.

Where pollution incidents do occur, Panorama showed the scale of those incidents, but their impact was downgraded by the water company and ignored by the Environment Agency.

In the past three years, the Environment Agency has only attended five per cent of the incidents recorded nationally. Of the 931 incidents in the United Utilities region, they only attended six incidents; just 0.64%. It appears it is the water company who decided whether the Environment Agency attended or not.

Many of the incidents reported by the programme appear to have been deliberately downgraded to a category four level. This should mean there is no impact and the Environment Agency do not attend. But the evidence uncovered by Panorama showed many of these incidents were categorised as being level three or two, showing there was an impact, before being subsequently downgraded to a category four.

In response Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns, said:

“Sadly, I’m not surprised. We have over 620 anglers regularly monitoring over 180 rivers through our Water Quality Monitoring Network and can see what is happening on our waters. We cannot trust what water companies and the Environment Agency tell us. This isn’t just a few mistakes caused by a lack of resources and overstretched staff. This is a systematic and arguably, deliberate system of falsifying reporting and cheating, with a regulator happy to go along with it. We know this because of the bravery of many passionate and dedicated staff who have blown the whistle on what is happening inside the agency.

“Regulation of the water sector is completely broken. It is time to sweep away the current system, with the EA regulating the environment and OFWAT the economic aspects, and start again. We need a regulator that is truly independent, has strong leadership, and is prepared to act. We must put an end to this madness.”

You might also like