Water giant pays up for flushing raw sewage down River Mersey

Water company United Utilities must pay £10,000 for discharging 56,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage into the river Mersey, a local magistrates' court decided on Thursday.

The incident is the fourth time United Utilities is prosecuted this year, with a recent fine of £7,000 imposed for polluting the river Beal and the subsequent removal of dead trout from its banks (see related story).

The latest sewage spill was caused by the company failing to provide backup pumps when carrying out improvements to its water treatment works in Birkenhead, northwest England, leaving untreated sewage flowing freely into the Mersey for over a week.

Between 30 March and 7 April the treatment works released a volume of raw sewage equivalent to 20 Olympic swimming pools into the river, Wirral magistrates' court heard. It ordered the company to pay £2,000 for the sewage release, and £8,000 for not having at least one standby pump in reserve.

The EA's Regional Director Tony Dean said that the effect of such a large amount of sewage on a relatively clean and bio-diverse river is difficult to quantify, but is likely to be significant.

"We are extremely disappointed that United Utilities failed to put in place measures that could have prevented the sewage discharge," he said.

"Over the past 20 years we have worked closely with United Utilities, along with the Mersey Basin Campaign and local industry, to improve water quality in the Mersey. Our work has transformed it from one of Europe's most polluted waterways to a clean, healthy river supporting many species of fish and other wildlife. On this occasion United Utilities failed to provide the necessary controls to protect the river.

"As the River Mersey is a large tidal body of water it is impossible to assess the environmental impact of the sewage discharge, although it is likely to have had a significant impact. This amount of sewage would reduce oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other water creatures," he said.

United Utilities said that there was no evidence to demonstrate that the discharge had had a significant impact on the River Mersey. They also said that they have taken measures to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

Steve Fraser, United Utilities' wastewater operations director, said: "The discharge, while regrettable, was equivalent to an ice cube in a bath of water, but of course we have taken measures to try and make sure it doesn't happen again."

He added: "We have spent millions of pounds in recent years on improving wastewater services to help make the River Mersey the cleanest it has been for more than 100 years. We will continue this work over the next few years."

A £10,000 fine is half of the maximum of what a magistrates' court can impose on a company for water pollution offences. United Utilities had made a £360m profit in 2004, according to its latest annual report.

Goska Romanowicz


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