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Southern Water fined £90m for deliberately dumping raw sewage into sea

Southern Water is fined record £90million for deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea in Hampshire, West Sussex and Kent

  • Southern Water pleaded guilty to 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges
  • Tonnes of raw sewage polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015, a court heard
  • The judge said that Southern Water’s behaviour had been ‘shocking’ and the offences had been ‘committed deliberately’ by the board of directors at the time 

Southern Water has been fined a record £90 million after bosses admitted deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage illegally thousands of times over a five-year period into the sea.

The company pleaded guilty to 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges from 17 sites – the equivalent to one pipe leaking continuously for seven years.

Tonnes of sewage polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015, a court heard.

Passing sentence, the Honourable Mr Justice Johnson said, of the formal 51 guilty pleas, that the Southern Water’s behaviour had been ‘shocking’ and the offences had been ‘committed deliberately’ by the company’s board of directors at the time. 

The company pleaded guilty to 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges from 17 sites in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex – the equivalent to one pipe leaking continuously for seven years. Pictured: The 17 areas where Southern Water released raw sewage illegally

He said: ‘Each of the 51 offences seen in isolation shows a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosytems along the North Kent and Solent coastlines, for human health, and for the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters.

‘Each offence does not stand in isolation. It is necessary to sentence the company for the totality of the offences to which it has pleaded guilty. But even that does not reflect the defendant’s criminality.

‘That is because the offences are aggravated by its previous persistent pollution of the environment over very many years.’

Bosses deliberately painted a misleading picture of compliance to the Environment Agency, which brought the criminal prosecution, Canterbury Crown Court heard. 

And some of the dumping hit conservation sites, causing major environmental harm to shellfish waters. 

The Environment Agency brought the criminal investigation after the shellfish were found to be contaminated with E. coli.

Tonnes of sewage polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015, a court heard. Pictured: Bosham, West Sussex, where raw sewage was deposited

Between 2010 and 2015, raw sewage was diverted away from treatment works and instead into rivers and coastal waters so as to allow the company to avoid the costs of upkeep and financial penalties, the court heard. 

The total amount of untreated sewage discharged into the environment was somewhere between 16 billion and 21 billion litres.      

In March 2020, Southern Water admitted 51 counts of discharging untreated sewage at Maidstone Crown Court. 

The criminal prosecution follows a £126 million penalty on Southern Water in 2019 as a result of the company’s regulatory failings over the same period.

The company failed to operate some wastewater treatments works properly and did not invest enough to prevent wastewater spills.

It manipulated the wastewater sampling process, meaning the provider avoided penalties.

Chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, said: ‘With nature in crisis, no-one should profit from undermining environmental laws.

‘This sentence shows fines for environmental offences are starting to reach the same level as the highest fines for crimes in financial services and that is good.’

Passing sentence, the Honourable Mr Justice Johnson said, of the formal 51 guilty pleas, that the Southern Water’s behaviour had been ‘shocking’ and the offences had been ‘committed deliberately’ by the company’s board of directors at the time. Pictured: Swalecliffe beach in Kent where the sewage was deposited 

She added: ‘Like all water companies, Southern Water has a responsibility to operate in accordance with permit conditions and protect against serious pollution.

‘In its deliberate, widespread and repeated offending, it has failed the environment, customers and the system of environmental laws the public puts its trust in.’

The case is the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history and saw pollution offences from 16 waste water treatment works and one storm overflow.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: ‘The findings in this case were shocking and wholly unacceptable. Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished by the full force of the law.

‘This fine, the largest ever imposed on a water company, is absolutely appropriate and welcomed.’

Southern Water chief executive Ian McAulay said: ‘I am deeply sorry for the historic incidents which have led to today’s sentencing and fine.

‘I know that the people who rely on us to be custodians of the precious environment in southern England must be able to trust us.

‘What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.’

He added that the fine would not have an impact on customers’ bills, with shareholders bearing the cost.    

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