Southern Water has been punished for negligence as a judge fined the firm £160,000 after raw sewage was pumped into the sea.
Several failures saw the untreated waste dumped half a mile off the coast of East Worthing as the company desperately tried to prevent sewage flooding Worthing Hospital and nearby homes in September, 2012.
The company was fined £160,000 and also ordered to pay £27,000 in costs to the Environment Agency.
Sentencing at Chichester Crown Court on September 22, judge Christopher Parker QC said there was a ‘negligent failure’ from Southern Water in not putting a sensor in place that could have prevented the whole incident occurring.
“There was always a risk of failure at that critical point in the process,” said Judge Parker.
He said it would not have cost a great deal to put in a back-up system, labelling it as a ‘small risk of a serious outcome which was ignored for all together much too long’.
After 40 million tonnes of raw sewage was pumped into the sea from the East Worthing Wastewater Treatment Works, an eight-mile stretch of beach was closed for six days.
Despite acknowledging that there was no real harm done to the area by the discharge, Judge Parker said: “No one would have dreamed of going swimming in the sea or boating or exposing their children to risk on the beaches.”
Speaking after the sentencing, Southern Water’s director of operations said it was a ‘significant fine’ but more than 100 times that amount had been invested in improving the site since then to install back-up systems and reduce the risk of a future repeat.
Phil Barker said: “We apologise to any customers or businesses who were affected by the incident at our East Worthing waste water treatment works back in 2012.
“We are disappointed with the verdict but we have a responsibility to our customers and we took the tough decision to make a controlled release of untreated wastewater into the sea to protect homes and the hospital from flooding.”
Southern Water was originally charged with three counts by the Environment Agency, but was acquitted of two of them by a jury earlier this year. The company was, however, found guilty of the remaining charge of breaching its environmental permit.
Judge Parker noted the company had made many steps to improve since the incident.
“There has been a substantial reduction in the number of unauthorised discharges in the last two years,” he said.
At the time of the discharge, giant band screens, which filter rags out of the works, had been removed from the site and temporary screens were in place. Also a sensor malfunctioned, meaning the actual sewage level did not register and three pumps burned out after whirling in an empty tank.