The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has raised concerns over possible breaches of environmental law by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and Ofwat in their oversight of untreated sewage discharges.
These discharges managed through combined sewer overflows (CSOs), play a crucial role in preventing sewage from backing up into homes during network overload but can pose significant environmental risks.
The OEP initiated an investigation into the regulation of CSOs by these public authorities after receiving a complaint last year, alleging lapses in compliance with legal duties related to sewage management monitoring and enforcement.
The investigation’s primary objectives are to clarify the responsibilities of these public bodies and ascertain if they have failed to adhere to their obligations.
In cases of identified failures, the OEP intends to work toward enhancing regulation to achieve long-term improvements in water quality.
At present, based on information gathered during the investigation, the OEP suspects that all three public authorities may have fallen short of environmental legal requirements.
The OEP has issued Information Notices to each organisation, outlining the potential breaches.
The public authorities have been granted two months to respond to these Information Notices, allowing them to express agreement or disagreement with the OEP’s findings and propose corrective actions.
Helen Venn, Chief Regulatory Officer at the OEP, said: “As a result of our investigations so far, we think there may have been misinterpretations of some key points of law. The core of the issue is that where we interpret the law to mean that untreated sewage discharges should generally be allowed only in exceptional circumstances, such as during unusually heavy rainfall, it appears that the public authorities may have interpreted the law differently, permitting such discharges to occur more often.
“This then has consequences for the regulatory activity that follows. The guidance provided by the government to regulators, and the permitting regime they put in place for the water companies, possibly allow untreated sewage discharges to occur more regularly than intended by the law without risk of sanction. This is what has created the possible failures to comply that we have identified. ”
A Defra spokesperson said: “The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it, driving forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement – and it’s why we are introducing a legally binding target to reduce storm overflows.
“While we do not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”
Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Philip Dunne, said: “In January 2022 the Environmental Audit Committee reported that there were “multiple potential points of failure in the regulatory arrangements for monitoring, governance and enforcement of water quality.
“The OEP’s information notice today, issued after a thorough investigation, tends to confirm this sorry state of affairs.
“We now look to all the regulators involved to assess the OEP’s findings and reply constructively and responsibly.”