Government firms up unlimited fines for water companies pumping sewage into nature

Image: Surfers Against Sewage

The Agency can now hand out limitless financial penalties under new legislation aimed at protecting the environment and speeding up the enforcement process. Previously the Environment Agency could only hand out fines up to £250,000 for offences.

The power will apply to permit breaches for combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and hazardous waste disposal.

The most serious offences will continue to be dealt with through criminal proceedings, which already have unlimited fines in the sentencing guidelines.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed the novel law allowing uncapped fines after the proposal received “widespread public support” at consultation. Defra’s consultation on the matter ran from April and received 105 responses, 70% of which were from individuals.

“By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. This will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and harm our rivers, seas and precious habitats,” Rebecca Pow, water minister said.

Environment Agency chairman Alan Lovell welcomed the extra powers to “deliver penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce, even though the most serious cases will continue to go to court”.

He called the uncapped fines an important deterrent for boosting compliance across sectors.

Defra said sentencing guidelines would ensure the level of penalties are “proportionate to the degree of environmental harm and culpability”.

This would reflect the operator’s ability to pay, size of the operator, and the degree of responsibility and harm.

Industry body Water UK welcomed the announcement. A spokesperson said: “It is right that regulators have all the powers they need when things go wrong.

“With 99% of sewage works fully compliant with their legal permits, enforcement will only ever be one part of the solution. Bringing about the transformation we all want to see requires hard work, innovation, and investment – which is why we are proposing to invest £10 billion in the biggest overhaul of our sewers since the Victorian era.”

Defra said the civil penalties would “offer regulators a quicker method of enforcement than lengthy and costly criminal prosecutions”, but did not specify the appeal process for an organisation handed a such a penalty.

Under Liz Truss’ brief government, Defra secretary Ranil Jayawardena proposed £250 million fines for polluters, which was then upped to limitless fines by the next cabinet.

Industry experts have previously shared concerns with edie’s sister title Utility Week that the proposals would not speed up enforcement of civil breaches and place an extra burden on the EA to deal with appeal processes.

Related news: Water companies pledge £10bn to address sewage discharges 

Ruth Willams

This article first appeared on edie’s sister title Utility Week

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