South Somerset swim against the tide as the Environment Agency bails on reporting serious incidents

Just 24 hours after Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, (EA) issued dire warnings about the impact of the climate crisis on lives and livelihoods, the very same agency drops pollution incident reporting. This relaxation in reporting seems at odds with Bevan’s passionate call to the government – and the public –to put the same effort into tackling the “unseen pandemic” of the climate emergency that they had into the fight against the Covid crisis.

“We will get the environment we pay for, we will get the climate we work for,” he said.

Given that we have a government determined to build a bonfire of regulation and which is backing a new coalmine in Cumbria and pulling hundreds of millions of pounds out of its green homes grant programmes, it seems likely that the environment we will be getting is going to be a dirty one.

Meanwhile, in South Somerset, efforts are being made to swim against the tide, as outlined in this press release:

South Somerset Liberal Democrats proposed and passed a motion aimed at shining a light on the culprits responsible for the discharge of raw sewage and high levels of phosphates into Somerset’s rivers and streams.

A motion put forward by Cllr Mike Stanton (Burrow Hill Ward) passed unanimously tonight (25th October), receiving cross-party support.

The Liberal Democrat administration at South Somerset District Council have called on Somerset’s MPs to support Conservative Philip Dunne MP’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which aims to regulate and monitor the discharge of phosphates and untreated sewage into watercourses.

It sets out requirements for water companies to upgrade their treatment plants ‘where practicable’, and to ‘progressively reduce’ their reliance on Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) which send untreated sewage into our rivers and streams during periods of heavy rainfall.

But South Somerset’s Liberal Democrats want to see stronger action than the Bill is proposing. They are calling on the Bill to refer specifically to phosphates pollution, and to be given more teeth. They are also urging Somerset’s MPs to move for the Bill’s Second Reading as a matter of urgency.

Cllr Mike Stanton, proposer of the motion, said:

“All the District Councils across Somerset are affected by the problem of excessive phosphates in our water. So far the government has expected local authorities to find a way to mitigate the damaging practices of private water companies. In the meantime, almost the entire planning system has ground to a halt.

“South Somerset District Council has worked hard to achieve a 5+ year Housing Land Supply, but all of this is in jeopardy because water companies are allowed to discharge treated sewage into our waters that contains dangerous levels of phosphates.

“The way to solve this problem is with the right legislation, so we are calling on the government to enhance Philip Dunne MP’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill and accelerate its passage through Parliament.

“We want the Bill to have more teeth – to set out clear timetables for when water companies must improve their treatment plants, as well as strict limitations regarding the levels of untreated sewage and phosphates they are allowed to discharge into Somerset’s rivers and streams.

“Water companies have been too slow to upgrade and improve their wastewater treatment plants; their forward plans add further delay.”

Cllr Oliver Patrick, who seconded the motion, added: 

“I seconded this motion because I feel this phosphates problem is a canary in the coalmine. It’s an issue close to home, too. The Sewer Storm Overflow (SSO) in East Chinnock, which is in my Ward, discharges raw sewage into the Chinnock Brook for hundreds of hours every year. Chances are that, whenever we have heavy rain in Somerset, there’s human sewage in our local rivers and streams.

“The sad truth is that the vast majority of wastewater treatment plants in Somerset do not remove phosphates, which then flow into the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site and do a tremendous amount of damage to what is an internationally recognised Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). 

“We seem to be too often caught by surprise with environmental issues, and forced to come up with reactive solutions to mitigate the environmental damage already done. This issue should remind all of us of the need to be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to protecting the environment. After all, there is no Planet B.” ‘

What are the Environment Agency playing at? And what is this government playing at? We are hosting the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow in November, where no doubt Johnson will relish his slot on the world stage and use it to waffle out some fresh, crowd-pleasing, fantasmagorical stuff about his vision for the future. We have to face the fact that his words, his government’s big plans and statements do not add up to a heap of beans when we scrutinise the action taken.

Wherever you live, please write to your MP and urge them to support Philip Dunne’s Sewage (inland waters) Bill and to take the further steps on untreated sewage and phosphates. You could also contact the Environment Agency and demand that they reinstate their serious incident reports as a matter of urgency.

Once again we are in a battle for transparency and scrutiny, but it looks like we’ll be peering through very murky water if this government has its way.