Campaign group launches legal case against Government over microplastics
Campaign group ‘Fighting Dirty’ has initiated legal proceedings against the UK's Environment Agency (EA) and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs over the alleged lack of testing for microplastics and harmful chemicals in sewage sludge spread on land.
In documents submitted to the High Court, the group contends that the EA acted unlawfully by reneging on its previous commitment to legislate on toxic sewage sludge by 2023, a problem acknowledged as a potential threat to human health.
The EA is responsible for regulating the use of sludge composed of processed sewage solids, industrial effluent and surface water run-off, which is sold to farmers by water companies and used as a fertiliser on agricultural land.
However, the rules governing the spreading of sewage sludge have remained unchanged since 1989.
A report commissioned by the EA in 2017, uncovered by Greenpeace, revealed that English crops were contaminated with hazardous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels that could pose risks to human health.
In 2020, the EA outlined a strategy for safe and sustainable sludge usage, emphasising the “unacceptability” of the “do nothing” approach and pledging the introduction of regulations by mid-2023, which would incorporate sludge testing and regulation into the Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR).
Nevertheless, an updated strategy published in August 2023 removed the deadline, failing to provide any specific timeframe for action.
Green group City to Sea’s policy manager Steve Hynd said: “Microplastics are the hidden environmental crisis of our age. They’re buried meters deep in Antarctic Sea ice cores, they’re found within the guts of marine animals inhabiting the deepest ocean trenches, and they’re found on the peaks of the highest mountains.
“Increasingly we know that they’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat and liquids we drink. The idea that we are spreading them directly onto farmland without regulation or control is horrifying. It represents a dereliction of duty from those that are meant to be regulating this sector.”
edie reached out to the EA for a comment.
The EA said: “As the responsible regulator in England for the supply, treatment, storage and use of sludge, the purpose of our strategy is to enable its safe and sustainable use on land.
“This ensures water companies meet their environmental obligations while contributing to clean and plentiful water and soil that is healthy and productive.”
High levels of microplastics in Europe
Recent studies have shown European farmland as the largest repository of microplastics worldwide.
Research by the University of Cardiff and the University of Manchester revealed that UK soils have the highest level of microplastic contamination among European countries, with 500 to 1,000 microplastic particles applied per square meter of agricultural land annually.
Microplastics not only threaten wildlife, as they are easily ingested and can carry contaminants, toxic chemicals, and hazardous pathogens, but they also pose a potential risk to the entire food chain.
Government legal battles
While Defra defended itself by stating that it never promised to implement the policy but only to consult on it, Feedback is questioning the legality of this decision on the grounds that Defra’s decision is “not based on a reasonable or rational view of the evidence it received” through consultations with the industry.
Additionally, the High Court recently announced that it will conduct a judicial review of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) decision to reduce funding for walking and cycling by 75%, following an application by green campaigners.
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