Treated wastewater is as clean as it has ever been.
That’s the message from officials at Southern Water, which took The News on a tour around its sprawling wastewater treatment plant at Budds Farm in Havant.
It follows heavy criticism earlier this year when more than 5,500 people signed a petition asking the Worthing-based water company to stop ‘polluting’ Langstone Harbour.
Hayling campaigner Mark Coates went as far as to suggest that the Environment Agency should take away its permit.
It’s not difficult to understand people’s frustration, considering the headlines in recent years.
Five years ago Southern Water was fined £150,000 for a number of illegal ‘discharges’ – or releases – into Langstone Harbour, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
And last year the company was fined £160,000 after 40m tonnes of sewage was pumped into the sea from the East Worthing Wastewater Treatment Works in 2012.
But that was then and this is now, stress officials.
Some £30m has been spent on upgrades, including rebuilding Fort Cumberland, in Eastney, which pumps untreated wastewater to Budds Farm for treatment. (Budds Farm then pumps the treated wastewater out to sea via a three-mile pipe).
And the city’s sewers have been improved significantly so that rainfall is pumped directly into the sea during storms, rather than mixing with the sewage and potentially overloading the system.
This has reduced the burden on Fort Cumberland and Budds Farm by a third and has significantly lessened the chance of any releases during storms.
But there will still be times when screened sewage has to be released to stop homes being flooded, says Paul Kent, environment and wastewater strategy manager.
He says: ‘During heavy rain, we have to store water on site in storm tanks.
‘Before any of that happens there’s 18 Olympic swimming pools-worth of stormwater storage held on.
‘Once the rain subsides, that’s pumped back into the system for treatment.
‘There’s a bit of a misconception that when it rains we indiscriminately release into the harbour.
‘There’s a set of measures we have to go through.
‘This is the permitted and consented method of dealing with wastewater.
‘If we didn’t release excess flows into the harbour, homes would flood.
‘It’s the bath analogy – if we didn’t have this release valve, then flows would back up in the system and the city would flood.
‘Bearing in mind most of Portsmouth city is below sea level and one of the densest conurbations in our area, it would be catastrophic if there was flooding.’
I ask whether these releases could be avoided altogether.
Mr Kent says: ‘The way to do that would be to build more storage.
‘Our consents from the EA don’t require us to do that. The vast majority of the time the storage will be adequate.’
Anything that is released into the harbour during storms is heavily diluted, stress officials.
Mr Kent says ‘raw sewage’ can be a misleading term because wastewater is only around three per cent human waste.
Most of it is from sinks, washing machines, and includes toilet water.
Far from being ‘raw sewage’, Mr Kent highlights that during a storm anything released from the storm tanks is 99.9 per cent untreated wastewater, with 0.1 per cent human waste.
Mr Kent says every customer flushing their toilets has a responsibility to the environment.
Only the three Ps – poo, pee and (toilet) paper – should be flushed.
‘There are nasty skips of stuff that should not be flushed away,’ says Mr Kent.
‘Our “keep it clear” campaign is focused on how customers can save themselves money and help us to reduce the impact on the system.’
So, despite what some critics may say, it seems a corner has been turned. And the company has committed to investing more to improve the system further.
But is it enough? Louise MacCallum, environment officer for Langstone Harbour, says: ‘They have invested a lot which is great to see. If you compare things today with a few years ago there have been improvements.
‘But personally I think much greater improvements could be made. We can put a man on the moon – we don’t have to pollute our marine environments.’
n Southern Water treats wastewater for a population of 4.6m.
n Budds Farm in Havant processes wastewater for about 380,000 people in the Portsmouth area.
n The average amount of daily wastewater recycled is 718m litres.
n The company has 365 wastewater treatment works and the Budds Farm site is the main one for the Portsmouth area.
n 99 per cent of beaches in the Southern Water area meet European water quality standards.
n During heavy rain, storm tanks at Fort Cumberland, Eastney, and Budds Farm can store 47m litres of stormwater - enough to fill 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
n In 2015 the company released stormwater on 28 separate days into the harbour from stormwater overflows.
n All of these releases were permitted by the Environment Agency.
n Improvements at Budds Farm have reduced its stormwater releases by just over a third since 2015 compared to the previous year.
n Releases from the two other outfalls into the harbour – Court Lane and Mainland Drayton – have been reduced by 50 per cent.
MY VIEW OF BUDDS FARM - REPORTER JEFF TRAVIS
I have worked in the Havant area on and off for the past 12 years.
And I have been to nearly every corner of the patch, but Budds Farm seems to have eluded me.
My first impression is that this place is massive – it’s sprawling and the various buildings and tanks make me feel very small indeed. It has a slightly eerie feel as there are so few people around among these automated machines.
On my tour, our first port of call is a skip, which contains ‘rag’ trailing down from a huge pipe.
This is the congealed, matted coagulation of all the wet wipes, condoms, and tampons that should not be flushed down toilets.
In amongst it, the skip is littered with pieces of sweetcorn. It’s definitely not a sight for sore eyes and I’m glad I ate my lunch a few hours ago, put it that way.
The tour continues when I am shown the huge tanks that separate out the human waste. The smell is nauseating, as you would expect.
Then I’m taken up to holding tanks where all the wastewater is given bacteriological treatment.
Air is fed into the tanks to keep the bacteria alive and the bacteria remove the nitrates and harmful materials from the liquid.
Clearly, nothing goes to waste here (no pun intended) as all the gas produced by the bacteria (bug farts I’m told) goes into making electricity for the plant.
Seagulls happily floating around on these tanks was not a sight I was expecting to see. On the other side of the site, a truck is collecting fertiliser for spreading on farms.
At the end of the tour, I see the holding tanks – they almost look like swimming pools – of the treated wastewater. I’m shown a bottle of the water and it looks remarkably clear.
There’s none of the hideous smells at the start of the process, and with bird life merrily quacking away on the surface of the water, it looks quite serene.