Southern Water fined £90m after pumping untreated sewage into Solent and Kent waters at 17 treatment sites

Southern Water has been fined £90m after pumping 16bn-21bn litres of untreated sewage into delicate ecosystems including the Solent.

By Ben Fishwick
Friday, 9th July 2021, 1:31 pm
Updated Friday, 9th July 2021, 5:14 pm
Southern Water's Budds Farm sewage treatment works. Picture: Michael Scaddan (070820-0075)
Southern Water's Budds Farm sewage treatment works. Picture: Michael Scaddan (070820-0075)

The company was handed the fine for a ‘shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment’ at 17 of its treatment sites over a six-year period from 2010.

Southern, which has 168 previous convictions and cautions, admitted 51 charges relating to discharges of untreated sewage.

The volume of the 6,971 separate discharges across the six years equated to 7,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

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Sentencing, Mr Justice Adam Johnson said the crimes were carried out ‘deliberately’ with an ‘intentional breach of or flagrant disregard of the law,’ or failure to put in systems to prevent them.

He said it was ‘inconceivable’ that senior board directors were unaware. They, he said, ‘deliberately failed’ to put in systems to stop the spills.

Southern Water would have been fined £99m for the charges with an extra £36m on top for the money it saved by not carrying out remedial work, the judge said.

But a £135m fine was reduced as it pleaded guilty at the first chance in March last year,

The judge added the fine could mean he was aware the company’s ‘continued viability’ may be reviewed following the fine but this was ’an acceptable consequence of the seriousness of those failings’.

During the sentencing hearing, Canterbury Crown Court heard members of the Havant Sea Angling Club in the Solent saw condoms and sanitary towels on their mooring lines in early 2016, with a ‘strong smell of sewage’.

So bad was the pollution that the boats had to be jet washed and the ropes replaced.

‘Dog walkers have been seen having to walk through the sewage,’ the sentencing judge said.

‘There are reports of dogs being violently ill after swimming.’

There were 674 discharges lasting 4,938 hours in duration at Budds Farm Waste Water Treatment Works in Langstone Harbour.

Those discharges took place between January 2010 and December 2015.

Between April 2010 and December 2012 there were 49 discharges totalling 335 hours at Bosham, West Sussex, and 226 discharges totalling 9,890 hours at Chichester.

Across all 51 charges admitted by Southern Water there were 6,971 discharges lasting 2,571 days – or 7.04 years – in total.

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Sentencing, Mr Justice Adam Johnson said each of the 51 offences show a ‘shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment’.

He said scientists agreed oyster numbers in the Solent had reduced, in part due to water quality.

When the Environment Agency investigated staff at the firm were under instruction from management not to speak with them ‘under any circumstances,’ the judge said.

Southern Water had a £213m operating profit in 2019/20.

Earlier today Richard Matthews QC, defending, said he could not guarantee there would never be another spill.

But he said: ‘I can give this guarantee: that the company is utterly committed to a top to bottom transformation in its transparency.

‘That’s what the chair and the CEO have set out to achieve.’

The firm said its actions were due to negligence, and were not deliberate.

Mr Justice Johnson said the company’s co-operation with investigators was ‘grudging, partial, inadequate’.

Significant steps have been taken to improve, the judge said. Upgrades are planned to Budds Farm, the court heard.

After sentencing, environment minister Rebecca Pow said: ‘The findings in this case were shocking and wholly unacceptable.

‘Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished by the full force of the law.

‘This fine, the largest ever imposed on a water company, is absolutely appropriate and welcomed. It will rightly be paid solely from the company’s operating profits, rather than customer bills.

‘I have spoken directly to the industry about taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, protecting rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them. Some companies are making welcome strides, but we still need to see significant improvements from others.’

Southern Water chief executive Ian McAulay said: ‘I am deeply sorry for the historic incidents which have led to today’s sentencing and fine.

‘I know that the people who rely on us to be custodians of the precious environment in southern England must be able to trust us.

‘What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.’

He added that the fine would not have an impact on customers’ bills, with shareholders bearing the cost.

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