Thames Water Utilities Ltd (Thames Water) has been fined an unprecedented £20,361,140.06 in fines and costs for a series of significant pollution incidents on the River Thames.
The prosecution saw six separate cases, which caused widespread, repeated, sustained and avoidable pollution at a number of sites from 2012 to 2014, brought together in one hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court. It is the biggest freshwater pollution case in the Environment Agency’s 20 year history.
The court heard how TWUL’s repeated illegal discharges of sewage into the River Thames, and its tributaries, resulted in major environmental damage including visible sewage along 14 kilometres of the river, and the death of birds, fish and invertebrates.
The multiple incidents from the company’s wastewater sites in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire caused significant distress and disruption to the public. Riverside residents, farmers, local businesses, anglers, and recreational river users were all affected. Sailing regattas and other events on the River Thames were also disrupted.
Investigations carried out by Environment Agency officers revealed a catalogue of failures by TWUL management. This involved repeated discharges of untreated or poorly treated raw sewage into rivers, disregarding risks identified by their own staff and failing to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to the serious problems.
The Court heard how for weeks, untreated sewage, amounting to millions of litres per day, was diverted to the rivers and away from the treatment process, although the incoming sewage flow was well within the designed capacity of the treatment works. In many instances less than half of the incoming sewage was sent for treatment.
Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said: “Water and sewerage companies provide a vital service to the community. Where they experience problems through no fault of their own we will always work with them to resolve them but where negligence causes serious pollution, or a serious threat to the environment, we will seek the strongest possible penalties.
“This case sends a clear signal to the industry that safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how all companies must now operate”.
His Honour Judge Sheridan asked that the fines must be met by Thames Water, and not be passed onto customers; “it was the company, not the customers, who broke the law”, he added.