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Sewage pollution alerts issued for almost 50 beaches in England and Wales

Pollution warnings have been put in place for nearly 50 beaches across England and Wales following the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea.

Following a period of heavy rain across Southern England, Southern Water carried out discharges taking place since Monday in efforts they say have been made to protect homes and businesses. The data was provided by water companies to the Safer Seas and Rivers Service, run by the charity Surfers Against Sewage.

Many of the contaminated beaches are along England’s South Coast and include Marine Protected Areas, as captured in the below video.

Many of the beaches are popular areas, including Bognor Regis, Lulworth Cove and Southend-on-Sea.

In a statement, Southern Water said: “There were thunderstorms accompanied by heavy rain the night before last and yesterday [Tuesday]. Storm releases were made to protect homes, schools and businesses from flooding. The release is 95-97% rainwater and so should not be described as raw sewage.

“We know customers do not like that the industry has to rely on these [discharges] to protect them, and we are pioneering a new approach.”

These kinds of discharges, which are legal, mostly happen after very heavy rain where there is a significant risk that pipes which carry storm-water and sewage may overflow. However, this is only supposed to happen in exceptional circumstances, but due to Climate Change, these are happening much more frequently.

The Environment Agency has issued pollution alerts across the country, warning that the heavy rainfall and flooding seen over the last 48 hours has affected water quality.

Sewage Dumps Continue

This comes after the Environmental Audit Committee revealed that seven water companies in England and Wales had discharged untreated sewage into rivers and the sea more than 3,000 times between 2017 and 2021. 

It also follows Southern Water being fined a record £90 million for deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea between 2010 and 2015.

Such dumps represent a significant public health issue. Swimmers can become seriously ill by ingesting bacteria from the sewage. Earlier this year, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty urged water companies to do more to keep effluent out of Britain’s waterways. He also noted that it was “unacceptable” that some individual storm overflows were releasing sewage up to 200 times a year, even though they were designed only for exceptional use during extreme rain.

In an effort to combat these ongoing discharges, the Government earlier this year told Ofwat (the water services regulation authority) to reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges during storm overflows.

Given the frequency and impact of these discharges, the Environment Agency recently called for bosses from water polluting companies to face jail time.

As was discussed in Chamber’s ‘Levelling Up the Conversation’ event regarding the environment in the South West of England, this kind of pollution not only threatens human health but also local biodiversity and ecologies.

Final Thought

These discharges are meant to only occur in exceptional circumstances, but they are growing more and more frequent, and only compounding the problems caused by climate change.

While water companies are working to develop new approaches to dealing with sewage and stormwater, the work is clearly not moving fast enough.

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