Whistleblowing portal opened in ‘crackdown’ on UK water companies  

Sewage discharged into rivers

A new portal has been launched in the UK to make it easier for internal water company whistleblowers to report serious environmental wrongdoing by their water companies.

In a bid to crack down on rampant sewage pollution and other environmental wrongdoing, workers are being encouraged to alert the Environment Agency (EA) to any concerns. The regulator says its intelligence teams will then assess reports, with the identities of reporters protected and treated as confidential sources.

Any findings can be used to support enforcement action against companies, if appropriate, including unlimited financial penalties and criminal prosecution.

The news comes after alarming new figures revealed that the number of sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas by water companies more than doubled last year.

Earlier today (28 March 2024), it was revealed that Thames Water shareholders have refused to inject £500m in emergency funding — increasing the prospects of nationalisation. The shareholders rejected conditions set by water regulator Ofwat, which would have damaged their financial returns.

As well as water companies, people working in the waste, nuclear, fishing, agricultural, and chemical sectors can also use the portal to report concerns and they are urged to use it if they do not feel able to raise issues with their company directly.

“We share the public’s disgust with sewage pollution and know there’s always more that can be done to protect our waterways,” says lan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency.

“This new whistleblowing portal allows workers to raise their concerns and we encourage people to come forward, knowing any information will be treated in confidence and with sensitivity.

“The more evidence we have to identify potential criminality, then the more actions we can take to make lasting improvements to our environment.”

The announcement follows growing outrage in the UK at the state of public waterways, which are repeatedly subject to sewage discharges at the hands of major water infrastructure companies. Continuous discharge of treated sewage is the largest source of water pollution from water companies.

In 2022 there were over 399,864 discharges of untreated sewage into UK rivers. Only 14 per cent of rivers in England are now considered to be in ‘good ecological status’. None have good chemical status.

The water companies have been accused of profiteering, while regulators such as the EA, have been accused by water experts of failing to robustly control the privatised industry.

Earlier this year, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management published a report calling for the next government to order an independent investigation into water companies.

“Over 30 years on from water privatisation, with widespread urbanisation and agricultural intensification, a fresh approach – including potential reform of water regulators – is needed,” the report says, which highlighted ongoing failures of government to address the problem.

“With levels of trust in water companies impacted by repeated reports of pollution and profiteering, both public and water practitioners want more transparency and assurance that companies are acting in the interest of society and the environment,” the report says.

Subject to consultation, EA inspections will rise to 4,000 a year by the end of March 2025 and then to more than 10,000 from April 2025.

The EA is currently conducting a criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works. Since 2015, the EA has concluded 60 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies securing fines of over £150m.

Last year, the EA lifted the cap on financial penalties that can be applied to companies that pollute the environment in the UK.

The previous £250,000 cap on Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs) has been scrapped, and the range of offences they cover has been expanded.

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