Holding water companies to account for sewage dumping

Good Law Project

Today, a vitally important case is being heard in the Court of Appeal, which could determine whether or not water companies can be held to account for dumping raw sewage into our waters. Profit-hungry water companies dump tonnes of raw sewage into our waterways every year. Human waste was released into rivers and seas for an unbelievable 3.1 million hours in 2020 through storm overflow pipes, which are only supposed to be used to relieve pressure on the sewage system during extreme weather.

It’s already very difficult for people to challenge water companies for this disgusting practice. And years of inaction by the Environment Agency and water regulator Ofwat, which have been chronically underfunded by the Government, mean there is little to deter water companies from dumping sewage. Now, United Utilities based in Warrington and the largest UK listed water company which operates water and sewage systems in the North West, is trying to make it even harder for people to hold water companies to account. They’ve asked the Court to close the door on certain types of legal challenges against water companies that dump untreated sewage in our waterways.

This case is about the Manchester Ship Canal. But the ramifications of this case could go much further. If United Utilities win, it will mean any water company can dump sewage into waterways in England and Wales without fear of being sued in the civil courts by landowners, angling clubs, swimming clubs, and other groups with an interest in the land.

The water companies don’t appear to care that they are polluting our waterways, making them deadly to wildlife and unsafe for people to swim and canoe in. They just want to continue dumping sewage without the risk of being sued.

This case has been fought back and forth between United Utilities and the operators of the Manchester Ship Canal for years. But until now, no one has stepped in to represent the interests of the public. This is why Good Law Project, alongside four other concerned organisations (detailed below), are intervening. We think it is essential that we protect one of the only means available to us to hold profit-obsessed water companies to account.

The hearing is from today to Thursday 31 March, and our expert-written submissions will be considered by the Court. We will let you know as soon as the judgment is handed down.

Good Law Project only exists thanks to donations from people across the UK. If you’re in a position to support our work, you can do so here.

This is a joint written intervention. The organisations intervening are:

  • Good Law Project
  • Environmental Law Foundation
  • London Waterkeeper
  • Stonyhurst College
  • Kent Environment and Community Network

You can read our intervening witness statement here. This sets out the scale of sewage discharges into water bodies, the impact on users and communities, and the gaps in enforcement and monitoring.

Stop Press: Water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers 372,533 times last year, a slight reduction on the previous year. They released untreated sewage for a combined total of more than 2.7m hours; compared with 3.1m hours in 2020, according to data released by the Environment Agency (EA) yesterday (31 March) see: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/31/sewage-released-into-english-rivers-for-27m-hours-last-year-by-water-firms

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