Contractors could face responsibility for pollution incidents

Legal responsibility for pollution incidents and serious failures in water quality standards could soon be borne by contractors as well as water companies, reports Malcolm Hallsworth, Editor of Water and Waste Treatment magazine.

Under the 1989 Water Act the legal responsibility to meet drinking water quality standards and wastewater treatment works discharge consents lies with the licensed water companies. But the legislation was drawn-up at a time when water companies were significantly less reliant on contractors, especially in the fields of operation and maintenance, than they currently are.

The need for legislative change has been raised with government by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) because of a perceived need to clarify responsibility within the water industry.

At present when work is contracted-out liability remains with the undertaker, which DWI chief inspector Michael Rouse told WWT “makes the water undertaker responsible for the sins of everybody else.” Mr Rouse indicated he did not believe the move meant contractors would relieve undertakers of any of their responsibilities because assessment, hiring and supervision of the contractor was still the responsibility of the water company.

The purpose of the proposed legislation is to assist in instances of gross negligence when it will afford regulators: “essentially the power to get anybody or all into court,” according to the chief inspector.

The likelihood of the proposals becoming law look strong. The DWI’s concerns are shared by government and Mr Rouse said promoting the inspectorate’s point of view to legislators was like “pushing against an open door.” He added that within the forthcoming Water Bill there “was an intention to make this [the change in contractor’s legal liability] possible.”

Commenting on the situation Paul Mullord, UK director of the contractor’s and supplier’s trade association British Water, told WWT he believed water companies should retain sole liability and that the proposal would further complicate the relationship between undertaker and contractor. “If it did happen,” he said, “it would be something I would be vociferously against.”

The article is published in the July issue of WWT.

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