Shit creek – Britain’s supply chain crisis is polluting our rivers

Adobe Stock licensed image by  Reddogs

As Britain’s supply chain crisis impacts the distribution of purification chemicals, the government allows water companies to dump untreated sewage into rivers.

Back in April, our Yorkshire colleagues reported on the appalling state of the UK’s waters. In 2020, the water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and the sea more than 400,000 times, for a total duration of 3.1 million hours.

This is a 50% increase on reported figures for 2019 and a staggering 1400% rise from 2016.  We’ve been polluting our rivers for years. The water companies seem more inclined to pay dividends to their shareholders than invest in the infrastructure that we actually need. For those of us in the East Midlands, it is noteworthy that United Utilities and Severn Trent are the companies that pay their shareholders the most whilst topping 2020’s league table for the number of hours that any company spilled sewage into the waterways.


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Non-stop sewage spillage

Located north of Derby, the Duffield sewage treatment works (run by Severn Trent) is the worst offender in the Midlands. Last year, it poured untreated sewage into the nearby River Derwent for 8085 hours, for 360 days of the year. That’s basically non-stop. The plant is said to have maintenance issues.

The government’s supervisory body, the Environment Agency, does have enforcement powers. Does it use them? Christine Colvin (Director for Communications at The Rivers Trust) thinks not. As she points out, “400,000 discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in 2020 give clear evidence that this isn’t the case currently.”

Back to Brexit

While this is a long-term and on-going issue, recent developments have shown that we have no problem that Brexit cannot make worse. The supply of ferric sulphate is a growing cause for concern.

Ferric sulphate is used to remove phosphorous at wastewater treatment plants. Too much phosphorus starves rivers of oxygen, killing animals and plants. There is no shortage of ferric sulphate but the supply chain crisis means that it is stuck in the factories and cannot get to the water treatment works. As we have explained in previous articles, a shortage of both UK and EU-based drivers has had profound effects on our ability simply to move things around the country.

The government’s response has been entirely predictable. All the way through this crisis, it has steadfastly refused to address the driver shortage and this new problem has not softened its attitude. Last week, it merely waived the regulations. The Environment Agency (part of Defra) will now allow water companies to dump untreated sewage into the rivers for the rest of this year, as long as they get written permission first.

No doubt Severn Trent’s shareholders will be delighted.

Thank the Lords

Not for the first time since the referendum in 2016, we have cause to be grateful for the moderating influence of the House of Lords. Two days ago, an amendment to the Environment Bill was passed in the Upper House which aims to ‘place a new duty on water companies and the government to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and requires that they progressively reduce the harm caused by these discharges.’

Let us hope that the amendment is not thrown out when the bill comes back to the Commons because otherwise, the metaphors can just write themselves.

We will literally be up shit creek without a paddle.

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