SEWAGE - 29.04.2021

What to do about sewage overflow

Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times in 2020. But it’s not just the utility companies that need to keep an eye on what they are releasing into waterways. What precautions should you take?

Big discharge

Data released by the Environment Agency (EA) shows that England’s water companies sent untreated effluent, including human waste and wet wipes, into the nation’s waterways for more than three million hours in 2020 (see The next step ).

The worst offender was United Utilities, which discharged sewage into rivers 113,940 times, followed by Yorkshire Water (65,083), Severn Trent (60,982) and South West (42,053). In 2020 the number of sewage spills recorded reached 403,000 - up from nearly 293,000 in 2019. The EA says the increase is largely a result of having more monitoring stations in operation.

Updated system required

The campaign group, the Rivers Trust, described the latest EA information as shocking and called for a “radical overhaul” of the way storm water is managed. Many environmentalists say that more investment is required to upgrade the capacity of sewage systems to cope with heavy demand during extreme weather events.

Water companies say that they are investing more than £1 billion in the next five years to improve storm overflow systems as part of a bigger programme of environmental improvements.

Is it legal to dump sewage in rivers?

The regulator allows water utilities to release sewage into rivers and streams following periods of heavy rainfall. This enables properties to be protected and stops sewage from backing up and flowing into people’s homes and gardens.

Sewage overflows are “a necessary part of the existing sewerage system,” and not a sign of a faulty system, according to the EA. However, it’s keeping an eye on where and how drains might get blocked, making it more likely that the sewage overflow system will be needed.

Are you responsible for blockages?

Whilst your water company is responsible for public sewers carrying sewage and storm water from your property’s boundary to the local wastewater treatment works, you are responsible for all pipes, gutters and drains in and around your buildings, including the drains leading up to the boundary at the property’s edge. If you have a blockage, flooding or structural defect there, it’s up to you to put it right.

There are a few guidelines for wastewater disposal you need to be aware of, otherwise you could be hit with a fine from the EA. If you discharge trade effluent into a public sewer, you will need a licence and must stay within a set discharge consent limit. If you breach your environmental obligations, not only can the EA bring a case against you, but water companies can too.

Tip. Make sure that everyone in your company knows what they can and cannot dispose of down the drain. For example, wipes, sanitary products, fats, oils and grease can cause big blockages.

Tip. Prepare for any extreme weather by making sure your drains are able to operate at full capacity.

Whilst water companies can send sewage into rivers after heavy rainfall, the EA is keen to stay on top of firms responsible for discharging materials into drains that cause blockages, such as wet wipes. Be sure to maintain all drains on your premises and brief staff on what can be flushed away and what can’t.

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