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Sewage in ‘protected’ areas

Revealed: Britain’s most sensitive wilderness areas flooded with raw sewage for 300,000 hours
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A view of Bassenthwaite Lake, from Whinlatter Forest, Cumbria, Lake District

Main image: the Lake District’s Bassenthwaite Lake was one of the worst-affected areas

Almost 1,200 sewage overflow pipes discharged in England and Wales’ most sensitive wildlife habitats for over 300,000 hours last year, all of which are supposed to be officially protected under conservation rules, Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed can reveal.

Unearthed mapped water company data on sewage spills in 2022 onto maps of England and Wales’ Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Area of Conservation (SACs), Special Protected Area (SPAs) and Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance) to identify every pipe that discharged within 50m of a protected nature site – Defra’s own definition of a ‘high priority’ discharge site.

Lakes and south coast

The analysis found that 1,193 raw sewage overflows discharge within 50m of a protected area, and that last year raw sewage was spilled in protected areas for 305,963 hours.

The total number of protected areas affected was 515.

The River Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lake, a conservation area encompassing parts of the Lake District, was one of the worst-hit areas, receiving more than 6,600 hours of sewage. It is the constituency of Trudy Harrison, Defra Minister for Natural Environment and Land Use.

Chichester and Langstone Harbour, an SPA and Ramsar site, received over 3,200 hours of sewage. A university study found over 50 chemicals and e.coli bacteria at 760 times the EU’s safe levels after sewage releases.

Water companies’ ‘vandalism’

Rivers, lakes and marine areas already in danger from high levels of nutrients from sewage and fertilisers (sensitive to eutrophication) received more than 200,000 hours of sewage.

Unearthed’s investigation found that over 38,000 hours of sewage were released into or within 50m of chalk streams in England last year.
Britain has little unspoilt natural landscape left, and we have lost half of our biodiversity, putting us in the bottom 10% of nations.

We do have detailed data on our remaining valuable ecosystems, and they are often officially protected conservation areas, but we are not protecting them. 
The government’s current Storm Overflow Reduction Plan, published last summer, outlines a target to ‘improve’ 75% of pipes discharging into high-priority areas by 2035, extending to all high priority areas by 2045. For many of these sites, work on spill reduction won’t even begin for over a decade.

‘These are the casualty figures from a war which nature is losing, badly. Private water companies treat our countryside as a toilet, and their vandalism doesn’t stop at some of our most sensitive conservation areas.

‘Beloved lakes, beaches and rivers, rare wildlife habitats, sites of special scientific interest are being sacrificed so water company bosses and shareholders can continue to reap huge profits.

‘The idea that the sewage industry could be shamed into doing the right thing has been tried and failed – nothing matters to them except profit. The only way to force them to clear up their mess is to make all of their dividends and bonuses dependent on actual results. Instead of long-term targets and empty threats, ministers should actually force the water companies to do the job we pay them for, starting now.’

Political campaigner for Greenpeace UK

UK’s harmful algal blooms

Studies have found that sewage being released into natural ecosystems elevates concentrations of nutrients, pathogens, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs and pesticides in the environment.
Aside from the chemical content, the release of sewage into slow-moving water can promote blooms of toxic blue green algae that can kill fish and aquatic plants, and animals that swim in the water or drink it, and can cause severe illnesses in humans.

‘Harmful algal blooms’ like these have been spotted in lakes including the Lake District’s Lake Windermere and Derwentwater, and symptoms seen include rashes, eye irritation, vomiting, diarrhoea, fevers and joint pain.

Affected sites

The protected nature sites most heavily hit with sewage spills last year included some of England and Wales’ most loved and well-known destinations.

The Solent and Dorset Coast, a large Special Protected Area spanning West Sussex, Isle of Wight and Dorset coasts, received 14,174 hours of sewage spills last year. Bognor Regis (Aldwick), a coastal town popular during the holiday season, falls within the SPA and has a ‘Poor’ bathing water status this year. Human waste was identified as the main cause of pollution.

The River Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lake SAC/Bassenthwaite Lake SSSI, encompassing parts of Cumbria, including the Lake District, was also one of the worst-hit areas, receiving 6,673 hours of sewage in 2022. 

Pembrokeshire Marine SAC, which extends around the Pembrokeshire coast and offshore, is one of the largest marine designated SACs. It received 6,997  hours of sewage last year. 

River Usk/Afon Wysg SAC runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park, which was recently renamed Bannau Brycheiniog in the Welsh language. 9,717 hours of sewage poured into this SAC last year. 

River Wye/Afon Gwy (England and Wales SACs) is an area that has been in the spotlight recently because of the high levels of agricultural water pollution currently damaging the river. The area also receives high amounts of sewage releases, which totalled 16,475 hours last year. 

Plymouth Sounds and Estuary SAC, which straddles the borders of Devon and Cornwall, is another popular holiday destination that was heavily hit with sewage discharges, receiving 11,436 hours in 2022. Earlier this year, the utility company South West water was fined £2.1 million for multiple illegal sewage incidents dating back to 2016, including one discharge from Torpoint sewage treatment works into Plymouth Sounds.

Morecambe Bay and Duddon SPA (also an SAC) received 14,786 hours of sewage. Locals have reported issues with swimming amongst human faeces around the bay on visits to the beach after heavy rainfall. The newspaper Lancs Live reported that people were avoiding swimming in the sea and had described a strong odour coming from the coastline. 

Humber Estuary SAC, SSSI, Ramsar, SPA received 3,470 hours of sewage. In 2019, researchers found high levels of pharmaceuticals in the water here, with the highest concentrations of ibuprofen found on the globe, this came mostly from regular discharges from wastewater treatment works but raw sewage also contributed.

River Avon SAC, which runs from Bristol to Bath received 6,960 hours. Swimmers have reported getting seriously ill from swimming in this river.

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