A perfect day for a peaceful protest

Paddle Out protestors at Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth. Photo by the author

Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth is renowned for sand, rockpools and clean water – at least that’s what the locals and tourists expect to find when they visit.

In recent years, however, would-be paddlers and swimmers at Gylly have been met by the products of a nearby Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO). These include everything you’d expect to find in a sewage system, including human excrement and used sanitary items: not the sort of stuff you want to be swimming in.

But last month several hundred swimmers, paddlers and beach users took the risk and attended the Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) Paddle Out protest at the beach. The aim: to show the regional water authority, South West Water, that customers are saying enough is enough, and demanding that regional firms clean up their act.

Over 300 protestors took to the water, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and SUPing, to a mass gathering just offshore, to get their message across to SWW that it’s not acceptable to make huge profits, pay dividends and bonuses while failing to repair and invest in infrastructure.

The CSOs were designed to be used during periods of exceptional rainfall, to discharge untreated waste-water in order to prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes. One of the issues voiced by protestors today was the number of times such discharges now occur.

Stacey Guthrie makes a point.

Stacey Guthrie from Falmouth turned up at Gylly sporting a wetsuit and a home-made turd head-dress to make her point. She tries to go swimming in the sea year round but says the number of days she can’t, due to sewage ‘spills’ is ridiculous.

“It’s clear there is sewage going into the sea and the fines clearly aren’t working as it’s still happening,” she said. “What other service do you pay so much for when you don’t get to use what you’re paying for?”

Helen Frost from Falmouth was protesting to highlight the fact that people such as lifeguards, who go into the water as part of their work, face sickness and potentially life-threating illness when they do so. The government’s own Swim healthy leaflet lists gastro-intestinal illnesses, respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections as potential issues for open water swimmers.

Josh Harris, Communications Officer for SAS, described the protest as an opportunity for people who love the ocean and the coastline to come together and show they won’t stand for what South West Water is doing to it.

“Last year there were over 100 sewage spills a day,” he said, “all the water companies issued an apology earlier this week but we need to see action, not just words.”

The apology was issued by Water UK, which represents the nine water and sewage companies in England. On Thursday Ruth Kelly, chair of the organisation, said

“We’re sorry about the upset and the anger from the fact that there have been overspills of untreated sewage onto beaches and into rivers over the past few years. We’re sorry that we didn’t act sooner, but we get it.”

That apology failed to impress the protestors. And the idea that customers should pay for the £10bn investment promised by Water UK was met with contempt. Stewart Woodward from Redruth said

“We shouldn’t be footing the bill when we’ve been paying for years and nothing has been done. With the county being surrounded by water we notice this perhaps more than anywhere else, but we’re the ones swimming in the shit and enough is enough.”

According to James Luxton, SAS Head of Community, SWW dumped sewage into rivers and oceans 37,000 times last year, including 50 times at Swanpool, and 250 times at Long Rock. In that same year SWW was fined £2.1m for dumping sewage, but still made £45m profit for their shareholders, while CEO Susan Davy was awarded a bonus of over £500,000.

Local outrage is beginning to have an effect, however. James added

“In the local elections, water quality was front and centre of what was happening. One of the key aims of our Dirty Money petition is to stop CEOs getting bonuses – the petition now has over 110,000 signatures, and since we started it four CEOs have said they’re going to refuse their bonuses this year.”

Chris Hart, one of the founder members of SAS over 30 years ago, was also unimpressed by the apology. He recalled

“When SAS started, literally every single coastal town, village or city around the UK used to discharge raw sewage continuously. We were fed up of surfing in a soup of human excrement and during the 1990s we lobbied hard, bought shares in every water company, we used the law and ran a multi-faceted campaign, and we helped trigger and steer a £5.5bn spend on the clean-up of our coastal waters.

“Today there is exactly that same sense of righteous indignation. It’s sad that we don’t have Europe holding us to task now, but we love our oceans, and when we love something we will do everything we can to protect it.”

On a sunny day, with clear blue water and a calm sea, the Paddle Out Protest passed off cheerfully and peacefully. But South West Water and the other firms should take note: there’s a real sense of anger amongst people fed up of being taken for granted and expected to put up with disgusting conditions. Enough is enough, and water customers think it’s time to prioritise water quality over company profits.

SAS is currently running a Dirty Money petition and campaign, aiming to stop companies profiting from pollution. To add your name please visit Dirty Money Petition – Surfers Against Sewage (sas.org.uk).