The Government may have broken the law by allowing water companies to dump raw sewage into England’s waterways, its environmental watchdog has said.
Water companies have been allowed to dump raw wastewater into rivers and seas for decades, under rules overseen by the Environment Agency, Defra and regulator Ofwat.
It appears that these releases were sometimes allowed to occur illegally due to a misinterpretation of “key points of the law,” the Office of Environmental Protection said.
The laws are designed to only allow wastewater to be released in exceptional circumstances, which usually means heavy rain when the system may be overwhelmed.
But the government and regulators have misinterpreted the law, the EPO said, to allow releases at other times.
Separate investigations by the Telegraph and the BBC have found that hundreds of releases occur during dry weather.
Helen Venn, chief regulatory officer at the EPO, said: “As a result of our investigations so far, we believe there may have been misinterpretations of some key points of the law.
“The crux of the problem is that when we interpret the law to mean that discharges of untreated sewage should generally be permitted only in exceptional circumstances, such as during unusually heavy rain, it appears that public authorities may have interpreted the law differently, allowing such that discharges occur more frequently.”
WildFish, the environmental charity that lodged the original complaint with the EPO, said the findings were “a huge step forward”.
Guy Linley-Adams, in-house counsel at WildFish, said: “Let’s be quite clear. These three public bodies are complicit in allowing pollution. That must end now.”
The findings published on Tuesday are the first step in the investigation by the EPO, which replaced the EU’s oversight functions after Brexit.
Public bodies now have two months to respond and say whether or not they agree with the conclusions and what measures they are taking to solve the problem.
Defra said it disagreed with the findings but was taking action to address wastewater emissions.
A spokesperson said: “The volume of wastewater discharged is completely unacceptable. That’s why we’re the first government in history to take such comprehensive steps to address it, driving more investment, tougher regulations and tougher enforcement, and that’s why we’re introducing a legally binding target to reduce storm surges. .
“While we do not agree with the EPO’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning more than two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the EPO on this issue.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We welcome this investigation by the Environmental Protection Office and share its ambition to drive improvements in water quality.
“We will always take action against companies that do not follow the rules or those that deliberately obstruct.
“We have obtained fines of more than £150 million and are carrying out our largest criminal investigation to date into possible breaches of permits at wastewater treatment plants.”
Ofwat told the BBC: “We welcome the EPO’s considerations, particularly on clarity of responsibilities for environmental protection and will work with them as their investigation progresses.”