Water in the spotlight

Barrie Clarke, director of communications at Water UK, comments on the Environment Agency's Spotlight report

The water industry accepts responsibility for adverse impacts on the environment reported in Spotlight on Business Environmental Performance 2003. But Water UK is disappointed that the Environment Agency is persisting with an old style of reporting which ignores more serious forms of environmental harm caused by business. The report also fails to take into account regret and lessons learned; the fact that prosecutions and fines are down and compliance up to 99%. Spotlight needs to start presenting the full picture of 21st century pollution

Regret and lessons learned

Water UK regrets pollution incidents from water company sites. Incidents are reported at board level and investigated. Lessons are learned, leading to new training arrangements and better ways of responding to incident reports. Companies accept responsibility for what has happened and make full reparation, whatever that takes. This means that long-term damage is almost always avoided. We also point to the scale of our networks. Sewers stretch hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and companies are responsible for thousands of discharges. Unlike all other monitored businesses, they have limited control of inputs to their processes, so blockages can occur anytime, anywhere.

Prosecutions and fines down

The Agency highlights a year-on-year increase in the number of water industry incidents. But it does not highlight that:

  • Prosecuted water company incidents fell by 44%;
  • Large fines on water companies were down by 66%; and
  • Effluent standard compliance increased to nearly 99%.
The full picture

Good corporate behaviour in a crowded country is essential and there is no question that the Agency should continue to report on business. But while it focuses on pollution from regulated industries and sites such as waste and sewage treatment works, more widespread damage goes unchecked.

The report has little to say about the routine pollution of rivers and streams by urban and rural business, but instead over-plays the damage caused by regulated business and highlights doubtful comparisons between industries.

Routine urban and rural pollution

Unfortunately, the report only focuses on directly regulated industry. But things have changed. In the water environment, regulation of point source pollution and water company investment has been successful.

On the other hand, routine pollution from farming, transport and unregulated business is now accepted as the most pressing problem, even by the Agency itself. The government has stated that the annual cost to the economy of water pollution could be more than £250m. Water companies meanwhile have to spend many millions removing pesticides and other pollutants from drinking water.

Spotlight misleads people by concentrating on pollution caused by directly regulated business. This is now a small part of the problem. Regulated business is also aware of the danger to its reputation from failing to protect the environment. Water companies spend billions raising standards and are committed to protecting watercourses. This protects the environment, customers and the health of their business.

Doubtful comparisons

Spotlight has evolved over the years, but sectors are still compared mainly on number of pollution incidents and prosecutions and size of fines. The comparisons are used to support media campaigns, but in reality they are a weak platform, because they disregard differences in operating conditions and the origins of incidents.

I hope the Agency will look at how it uses the Spotlight report. Couldn't the time and effort spent re-publicising incidents that have been through the courts be used better?

This kind of national report is an opportunity to promote the job that really needs doing - informing people and involving them in reducing the environmental effects of business and economic activity. Neither the job itself, nor the reporting, will be easy, but that's not quite the point.


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