Southern Water fined £160,000 for major sewage pollution at Sussex beaches

Worthing pier, West Sussex.

The Environment Agency has prosecuted Southern Water for causing a total of 40 million litres of untreated sewage to be discharged from its treatment works in East Worthing over a period of two days.
This major incident occurred in September 2012 due to failure of the treatment works which resulted in the closure of all beaches between the West Sussex coastal towns of Lancing to Ferring for a period of six days.
Southern Water Services Ltd was sentenced at Chichester Crown Court on Tuesday, 22 September. The water company was fined £ 160,000 and ordered to pay costs of £ 27,000.
At an earlier hearing, the Court heard at 9.30pm on 1 September 2012, Southern Water’s East Worthing sewage treatment works suffered a failure of three pumps at the premises. This resulted in a huge volume of untreated sewage, around 220 litres per second, being continuously discharged through an emergency short sea outfall about half a mile out to sea. The site is permitted by the Environment Agency to discharge treated effluent nearly three miles out to sea through its long sea outfall.

Pump failure
Southern Water notified the Environment Agency of the incident after four hours later and explained that all three of the pumps at the works had failed causing the effluent to be discharged straight out to sea without being first screened as required by the permit issued to them by the Environment Agency.
The water company was unable to repair the pumps for 45 hours and this led to around 40 million litres of untreated sewage flowing into the sea throughout this period. The Environment Agency opened its incident room in Worthing to co-ordinate its response to this major incident and staff worked around the clock to deal with the emergency. Officers also increased their monitoring of bathing water quality at the affected beaches throughout the duration of the incident.

Debris build-up
When interviewed by the Environment Agency about the incident, Southern Water explained that it was caused by a build-up of debris in the final effluent pumps, exacerbated by the failure of an important level sensor. The site’s main screens were removed at the end of 2011 and only inferior, coarser bar screens were installed at the time of the incident.
Chris Wick of the Environment Agency said: “We are pleased that the court decided to impose a significant financial penalty on the company today. The incident had a serious impact on local businesses, tourism and the public as a whole following the closure of local beaches for several days.
“We acknowledge that the company worked hard to repair the treatment works after the incident, but the fact remains that this was an avoidable incident, caused by the lack of adequate screens, and the lack of back up for a key monitoring sensor.
We take these types of incidents very seriously and will do everything within our powers to safeguard the environment and people affected, and that includes bringing those who harm the environment to account for their actions.”
Judge Christopher Parker QC said “The company knew there was a foreseeable risk of an unauthorised discharge for a nine month period due to the lack of adequate screening of untreated sewage at the treatment works. Therefore they should have been aware of the possibility of a serious failure at the site, were negligent and should have had adequate back up systems in place.”
It was noted however that the company had since taken steps to address the problems on site and measures put in place to reduce the risk of another incident occurring at their site in the future.