SOUTHERN Water is being investigated after it admitted sewage was allowed to spew into a protected nature reserve.
Untreated waste was pumped into Langstone Harbour when filtering screens failed at the pumping station at Fort Cumberland, Eastney, and the water treatment works at Budds Farm in Havant, following heavy rain.
Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, described it as ‘completely unacceptable’ and has called Southern Water to be held to account.
The water firm has been taken to court and prosecuted 40 times in the past nine years for pollution offences.
Last year it was fined a total of £150,000 for sewage leaks.
Now, the Environment Agency said it is once again considering taking legal action.
But Mr Hancock said tougher fines needed to be imposed to deter the company from allowing it to happen again.
He said: ‘There need to be bigger fines and stricter controls. The Environment Agency needs to make sure there’s a careful watch and not wait for members of the public to report this.’
Normally, when there is heavy rain, Southern Water has consent to discharge some screened sewage into the harbour. But on September 23 and 24, the screens failed at both Budds Farm and Fort Cumberland – allowing raw sewage to enter the beauty spot, a site of Special Scientific Interest and home to rare wildlife.
The spills happened for almost 19 hours from Budds Farm and more than 21 hours from Fort Cumberland.
This comes despite a promise last year from Southern Water that extra pumps, monitoring equipment and a £2m improvement scheme at Budds Farm would prevent spillages.
The problems at Fort Cumberland are well-documented, with the screens regularly failing and an improvement scheme not due to be finished until 2014.
Mr Hancock told The News: ‘It’s completely unacceptable.
‘Southern Water has spent a fortune of bill payers’ money on making sure this doesn’t happen.
‘To have this number of leaks begs the question what they are doing – and what they are not doing.’
Ann Buckley, a county councillor for Leigh Park and Bedhampton, is angry after finding untreated waste on the Hayling Oysterbeds.
She said: ‘We already have broken screens at Fort Cumberland. If the same thing is happening at Budds Farm, it’s very serious indeed.’
A statement from Southern Water said the two spills were caused when screens became blocked with non-biodegradable debris during heavy rain.
The statement said: ‘Such debris, which includes sanitary towels, ear buds and cleaning cloths, should be put in the bin and not flushed down the toilet and can cause blockages at treatment works and in the sewer network.’
Officials said beach cleans were organised every time there had been a spill.
A spokesman added: ‘We are working hard to remedy the problems at Fort Cumberland and to minimise the impact on the environment.
‘We are also in the final stages of designing a £20m scheme to divert rainwater from the city’s sewers, which will ease the pressure on the system during storms.’
Sheryl Newell, a spokeswoman for the Environment Agency, said: ‘We have given Southern Water a notice to create a long-term plan to prevent further spills.
‘We are working closely with Southern Water to initially implement a short-term solution to reduce the discharging and a longer term plan to tackle the problem completely.
‘It is still under investigation whether legal action is to take place.’
FIRM ‘ONE OF THE BIGGEST POLLUTERS’
SOUTHERN Water is one of the biggest polluters of rivers and beaches in the country.
Since 2003, the company has been taken to court and prosecuted 40 times for water pollution offences. Only South West Water has been prosecuted more times. Southern Water was fined last year for 36 illegal discharges in 2010.
Last year there were 47 leaks into the harbour. If prosecuted at crown court, there’s no limit on the fines the company could face. Magistrates’ court has a limit of £50,000.
The possibility of Southern Water’s licence being revoked is highly unlikely. All water companies have rolling licences. The government would have to give it 25 years’ notice if it wanted to revoke the licence.
Mr Hancock said: ‘There were always going to be protections given to these people as the government wanted to privatise as quickly as possible. I don’t think any government is going to try to buy them out – that would be the only way of doing it.’ Southern Water made £79.9m profit after tax in the last financial year – more than double the profits the year before.