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Accountability for sewage in rivers

Environmental campaigners permitted to intervene in case against United Utilities for dumping sewage in UK rivers
Discharge of sewage into a river

Good Law Project has been given permission to intervene in a crucial Court of Appeal case, to try to prevent water companies from having near-total immunity to discharge sewage into the UK’s waterways.

Alongside the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) and other grassroots campaigners, Good Law Project’s written submissions will be considered by the Court of Appeal, which said that it is ‘in the public interest that the Court should receive expert legal submissions’ from the interveners. The organisations are represented by the law firm Hausfeld.

Holding water companies to account

In 2018 United Utilities, the behemoth which operates the water and sewage systems in North-West England, quietly started a claim in the commercial courts seeking to effectively bar people from bringing certain types of claims against water companies that dump sewage into rivers and seas.

The High Court found in United Utilities’ favour, but the case is now set to be heard by the Court of Appeal.

If United Utilities were to win this case, it could bring an end to one of the few ways to hold water companies to account for sewage dumping.

The intervention by Good Law Project and other campaigning organisations aims to protect this vital legal option.

‘The case could open the sluice gates on claims against water companies for dumping sewage endangering local people and destroying the rivers where we swam as kids.

‘Water companies need a stronger incentive to put the public interest before their shareholders. The Environment Agency won’t enforce the law, and government turns a blind eye, so legal claims are all that is left.’

JO MAUGHAM
Director of Good Law Project

Sewage dumping in the UK

Sewage was dumped into English rivers on over 400,000 separate occasions in 2020 for a total of over 3 million hours.

United Utilities was responsible for over a quarter of these incidents.

The company’s sewage dumping affects rivers in the North West of England – Greater Manchester, Cumbria, Merseyside, Cheshire and Lancashire – as well as in Derbyshire.

According to Surfers Against Sewage, in the UK last year ‘six out of eight rivers tested pose a continuous serious risk to human health. It is now well known that only 14% of rivers in the UK are classed as being in good health.

A new report by the Environmental Audit Committee revealed that water companies ‘appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis’, and that funding cuts had ‘affected the regulator’s ability to monitor water quality.’

‘Intervention is an important legal mechanism for experts to bring evidence before the court, in the public interest. ELF works with and assists communities across the country plagued by the environmental and health consequences associated with sewage pollution into British water systems. We are delighted that the court has agreed that ELF’s evidence and that of others in the consortium will be able to assist the Court of Appeal to understand the context and wider ramifications of unchecked sewage pollution.’

EMMA MONTLAKE
Joint executive director of ELF

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