Southern Water fined £90 million after pleading guilty over 50 breaches of environmental law
Southern Water has been fined a record £90 million having pleaded guilty to 51 offences reported to involve the release of between 16 and 21 billion of litres of raw sewage into sensitive marine environments.
The water company appeared at Canterbury Crown Court on 9 July 2021 for sentencing, after pleading guilty to the illegal discharges of sewage which occurred between 2010 and 2015 across 17 sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex. It is reported that the allegations concerned 6,971 discharges, which amounts to some 61,704 hours of releases.
The Environment Agency (EA) commenced their investigation after shellfish were found to be contaminated with E. coli, a type of faecal bacteria. The EA found that Southern Water had deliberately diverted raw sewage away from treatment works and into the environment, which was said to reduce the costs associated with maintaining and upgrading their infrastructure.
It is reported that Southern Water had run their treatment plants at reduced capacity and that, rather than treating raw sewage as they were required to do by law, it had stored millions of litres of wastewater in storm tanks before releasing it into the sea.
The fine follows an earlier £126 million penalty imposed by Ofwat, the water industry regulator, on Southern Water in 2019 as a result of their regulatory failings over the same period of time.
The sentencing hearing
His Honour Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson said Southern Water "showed a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosystems along the north Kent and Solent coastlines, to human health and to the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters". He highlighted that the size of the fine was to act as a deterrent and remind other companies of “the need to comply with laws that are designed to protect the environment”.
The relevant discharges affected numerous sensitive and protected marine environments. It is reported that the Whitstable oyster harvest was affected to the point that it had to be halted and imported shellfish used during the 2013 oyster festival. At Millbrook in Hampshire, it is thought that Southern Water released almost 1 billion litres of raw sewage into waters that should contain a thriving shellfish industry. Langstone Harbour, a tidal bay popular with various water users was reportedly also affected, along with Beaulieu in the New Forest where shellfish harvesting had to be prohibited. Offering a victim impact statement, the chair of the Havant Sea Angling Club told the court of a sewage release where, “sanitary towels, condoms and tissues could be seen caught in the mooring lines of the vessels … the water was milky white … [there was a] disgusting and strong smell of sewage,”
Southern Water appointed a new CEO, Ian Macauley, in 2017. The company issued a statement following the sentencing in which they stated, “What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact” and that Southern Water has “made much progress and are continuing to invest to protect the environment and deliver our services safely and at a fair price for our customers”.
It can clearly be seen that Southern Water’s conduct between 2010 and 2015 has given rise to significant regulatory and criminal financial liability for the utility company. Doubtless, shareholders in other companies will be anxious to know that similar exposure does not exist, and it is reported that this was specifically alluded to when the deterrent element of the fine was referred to during the sentencing.
Many will also question whether their conduct has negatively affected businesses operating in the relevant areas, whether they rely on healthy shellfish stocks or a clean coastal environment in which to offer leisure activities. Fundamentally, we are all entitled to enjoy our coastlines free from unlawful sewage discharge.
This fine is significant and it is positive that Southern Water now say they are investing to protect the environment. However, the fine relates only to conduct that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Unfortunately, sewage discharges have continued frequently nationwide during the period since, and there are few signs of progress. It was recently reported that new EA data showed water companies discharged raw sewage into English waters over 400,000 times last year, with storm overflows being a significant part of the problem.
It is clear that concerted effort, encouraged by effective regulatory action of the type seen in relation to Southern Water, is required to protect our marine environment – and those who depend upon it – from the urgent impact of pollution.
With thanks to Emilio Graham for his assistance co-authoring this piece.