Thames Water Found Guilty of Deliberate Misleading
A two-day sentencing hearing at Lewes Crown Court has concluded with Thames Water, the largest water company in the UK, being fined £3.34 million for polluting the Gatwick Stream and River Mole in 2017.
Judge Christine Laing KC described the incident as a “significant and lengthy” period of pollution and accused the company of deliberately misleading the Environment Agency during its investigation.
The court heard that Thames Water had pleaded guilty to four charges relating to the illegal discharge of waste but had denied seeking to mislead the regulator. However, the judge found evidence of a deliberate attempt to mislead, including the omission of water readings and submitting a report denying responsibility.
Unnoticed Storm Pump Activation Results in Sewage Spill
The court heard that the pollution incident occurred on October 11, 2017, when a storm pump unexpectedly activated and filled up the storm tank for 21 hours.
Despite no substantial rainfall, the pump began spilling untreated sewage into the river for approximately six hours.
Alarming factors included the lack of specific alarms to alert staff to the overspill and the unavailability of the lead technician who was awaiting a new mobile phone.
Judge Laing KC expressed her astonishment at the fact that environmental disasters can occur due to such issues.
Recurring Environmental Offenses and Previous Fines
Judge Laing KC criticized Thames Water for the 2017 incident taking place just months after the company had been fined a record £20 million for a series of pollution incidents on the River Thames.
She deemed the company’s previous convictions “extremely serious” and emphasized the need for them to address problem areas promptly.
Thames Water’s track record of environmental violations raises concerns over its future, especially in light of its mounting debt.
CEO Steps Down and Company Apologizes
Thames Water’s chief executive, Sarah Bentley, stepped down last week after giving up her bonus due to the company’s environmental performance.
In a statement, interim co-chief executive Cathryn Ross expressed the company’s deep apology for the “unacceptable pollution” and acknowledged the significant errors and poor judgment exercised at the time.
Thames Water is taking steps to improve its operations, including a £33 million plan to upgrade the Crawley Sewage Treatment Works and other sites.
The Fine and Additional Costs
In addition to the £3.34 million fine imposed on Thames Water, the company has been ordered to pay nearly £129,000 in Environment Agency costs.
This latest prosecution brings Thames Water’s total payments for pollution incidents between 2017 and 2023 to £35.7 million.
Missed Opportunities and Failure to Respond
The Environment Agency, which conducted the investigation, criticized Thames Water for missing several opportunities to prevent the pollution incident and failing to provide vital information when requested.
The agency’s senior environment officer stated that the incident could have been entirely avoidable if Thames Water had adequate systems in place to manage the pollution risk.
The company’s failure to respond to alarms and take decisive action exacerbated the damage caused.
Future Challenges and Lessons Learned
Thames Water’s fine and subsequent criticisms highlight the need for the water industry to prioritize environmental protection.
The company’s financial challenges, coupled with its history of pollution incidents, raise concerns about its ability to fulfill its responsibilities.
Thames Water has undertaken a full evaluation of the 2017 incident and pledged to learn from its mistakes.
It has made voluntary payments of £1 million to local organizations to support projects aimed at mitigating the harm caused.
Water Companies’ Wider Sewage Discharge Problem
In a separate hearing, it was revealed that water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and seas via their storm overflows over 400,000 times in 2020.
The practice, allowed under permits issued by the Environment Agency, has been heavily criticized for its impact on the environment and public health.
The regulator has called for increased investment to improve the sewerage system and reduce the frequency of discharges.