The campaign group Fighting Dirty have launched legal action against the Environment Agency (EA) and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over a lack of testing for microplastics and harmful “forever chemicals” in sewage sludge spread on land.
In documents filed at the High Court, the group argue that the EA acted unlawfully by not fulfilling a previous commitment to legislate on toxic sewage sludge by 2023.
Steve Hynd, Policy Manager at not-for-profit City to Sea, commented: “Microplastics are the hidden environmental crisis of our age. They’re buried meters deep in Antarctic sea ice cores, they’re found within the guts of marine animals inhabiting the deepest ocean trenches, and they’re found on the peaks of the highest mountains.
“Increasingly we know that they’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat and liquids we drink. The idea that we are spreading them directly onto farmland without regulation or control is horrifying. It represents a dereliction of duty from those that are meant to be regulating this sector.”
The EA regulates the use of sludge made up of processed sewage solids, industrial effluent, and surface water run-off, which is sold to farmers by water companies and spread on agricultural land as a fertiliser. The rules governing the spreading of sewage sludge have not been updated since 1989, the campaign group says.
Microplastics are the hidden environmental crisis of our age.
In 2020, the EA published a strategy for safe and sustainable sludge use stating that the “do nothing option is unacceptable” and that regulations would be introduced by mid-2023, bringing testing and regulation of sludge into the Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR). However, the campaign group says in an updated strategy published in August 2023, this deadline was removed and no further timescale was provided for action.
Commenting on the case, campaigner and journalist, George Monbiot, said: “The total failure of effective regulation in this case suggests that there is little ecological difference between dumping raw sewage into rivers – as water companies routinely and disgracefully do – and spreading contaminated sludge over farmland.
“Worse in fact, as the sludge poisons the soil before seeping into waterways. The rules are at fault. By failing to update them, and by suppressing and ignoring the evidence of its own officials, the government is in breach of its legal obligations to protect the living world and human health.”