Thames Water was handed a record-breaking £20.3 million fine on 22 March – the largest ever penalty for a water utility – for releasing large amounts of untreated sewage into the River Thames. The incidents, which took place at a number of sites between 2012 and 2014, were blamed on negligence.
Six separate cases were brought together at Aylesbury Crown Court, following an investigation by the Environment Agency, in what was described as the biggest freshwater pollution case in the Agency’s 20 year history.
The fine was more than ten times the size of the previous record-holding fine for a utility, issued to Southern Water in December 2016.
The court heard how TWUL’s repeated illegal discharges of sewage into the River Thames, and its tributaries, resulted in major environmental damage including visible sewage along 14 kilometres of the river, and the death of birds, fish and invertebrates.
The multiple incidents from the company’s wastewater sites in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire caused significant distress and disruption to the public. Riverside residents, farmers, local businesses, anglers, and recreational river users were all affected. Sailing regattas and other events on the River Thames were also disrupted.
Investigations carried out by EA officers revealed a catalogue of failures by TWUL management. This involved repeated discharges of untreated or poorly treated raw sewage into rivers, disregarding risks identified by their own staff and failing to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to the serious problems.
The Court heard how for weeks, untreated sewage, amounting to millions of litres per day, was diverted to the rivers and away from the treatment process, although the incoming sewage flow was well within the designed capacity of the treatment works. In many instances less than half of the incoming sewage was sent for treatment.
It was pointed out to the Court that local residents impacted by the pollution were also customers of TWUL and were paying the company to have their sewage treated to the legally required standards – standards which protect the environment.
Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the EA, said:
“Water and sewerage companies provide a vital service to the community. Where they experience problems through no fault of their own we will always work with them to resolve them but where negligence causes serious pollution, or a serious threat to the environment, we will seek the strongest possible penalties.”
“This case sends a clear signal to the industry that safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how all companies must now operate.”
The presiding officer, Judge Sheridan, condemned the “disgraceful conduct” of Thames Water Utilities Limited, which he said was “entirely foreseeable and preventable.”
It was “a very dark period in the history of Thames Water” who demonstrated “scant regard for the law, with dreadful results for people who live in the area.”
He congratulated the EA for its “painstaking and thorough investigation”, and added that he hopes the courts never see the like of such a case again.
When commenting on the level of the fines, Judge Sheridan stipulated that they be met by Thames Water, and not be passed onto customers; it was the company, not the customers, who broke the law.
Anne Brosnan, Chief Prosecutor for the EA said:
“Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required by water company industry protocol.”