UK utility Southern Water fined for major sewage pollution

Sept. 23, 2015
The Environment Agency has prosecuted utility Southern Water for causing a total of 40 million litres of untreated sewage to be discharged from its treatment works...

The Environment Agency (EA) has prosecuted utility Southern Water for causing a total of 40 million litres of untreated sewage to be discharged from its treatment works in East Worthing over a period of two days.

This major incident occurred in September 2012 due to failure of the treatment works which resulted in the closure of all beaches between the West Sussex coastal towns of Lancing to Ferring for a period of six days.

Southern Water Services Ltd was sentenced at Chichester Crown Court on Tuesday, 22 September. The water company was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay costs of £27,000

At an earlier hearing, the Court heard that Southern Water’s East Worthing sewage treatment works suffered a failure of three pumps at the premises.

This resulted in a huge volume of untreated sewage, around 220 litres per second, being continuously discharged through an emergency short sea outfall about half a mile out to sea, according to the EA. The site is permitted by the Environment Agency to discharge treated effluent nearly three miles out to sea through its long sea outfall.

Southern Water notified the Environment Agency of the incident after four hours later and explained that all three of the pumps at the works had failed causing the effluent to be discharged straight out to sea without being first screened as required by the permit issued to them by the Environment Agency.

The water company was unable to repair the pumps for 45 hours and this led to around 40 million litres of untreated sewage flowing into the sea throughout this period.

When interviewed by the Environment Agency about the incident, Southern Water said it was caused by a build-up of debris in the final effluent pumps, exacerbated by the failure of an important level sensor. The site’s main screens were removed at the end of 2011 and only inferior, coarser bar screens were installed at the time of the incident.

In a responding statement, Phil Barker, director of operations, Southern Water, said: “We apologise to any customers or businesses who were affected by the incident at our East Worthing wastewater treatment works back in 2012.”

“This is a significant fine but we have already invested over a hundred times that amount over the past three years to improve the site and install back-up systems to help reduce the risk of a future emergency. We are disappointed with the verdict but we have a responsibility to our customers and we took the tough decision to make a controlled release of untreated wastewater into the sea to protect homes and the hospital from flooding.”

Chris Wick of the Environment Agency, said: “We acknowledge that the company worked hard to repair the treatment works after the incident, but the fact remains that this was an avoidable incident, caused by the lack of adequate screens, and the lack of back up for a key monitoring sensor.”

Judge Christopher Parker QC said “The company knew there was a foreseeable risk of an unauthorised discharge for a nine month period due to the lack of adequate screening of untreated sewage at the treatment works. Therefore they should have been aware of the possibility of a serious failure at the site, were negligent and should have had adequate back up systems in place.”


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