Thames Water hit with £2m fine for 'avoidable' sewage leak
Utility firm Thames Water has been ordered to pay a £2m fine by the Environment Agency (EA), after raw sewage from one of its pumping stations was found to have leaked into Oxfordshire's waterways.
The firm was taken to court on Thursday (3 January) after “numerous failures” in the management of a sewage pumping station operated by the company resulted in raw sewage leaking into a nearby stream, killing around 150 fish, according to the EA.
Prior to the hearing, Thames Water had already pleaded guilty to two charges of breaching environmental law.
The incident took place in August 2015, with experts estimating that untreated waste was allowed to leak into two brooks leading to the River Evenlode, a tributary of the River Thames, over a two-day period.
On 9 August, a member of the public called the EA after spotting several dead fish in Idbury Brook. When officers arrived at the scene, around 50 metres of nearby waterways were found to contain toxic levels of waste and sewage was also found seeping into a nearby garden via a manhole.
Further investigation found that Thames Water had disregarded more than 800 ‘high-priority’ alarms during the six weeks before the incident.
An additional 300 lower priority alarms were also ignored during this period, according to the EA, with one having been deliberately deactivated during a night shift. The EA also found evidence that Thames Water was aware the affected pumping station had failed “several times” in the 12 months leading up to the incident.
Handing Thames Water a £2m fine on Thursday at Oxford Crown Court, Judge Peter Ross concluded that the incident was a ‘high-end, category three harm’ offence.
EA environment officer Robert Davis, who led the investigation, said the damage caused by the incident was “foreseeable and avoidable”.
“Thames Water didn’t recognise the increased risk to the environment, ignoring or failing to respond adequately to more than 1,000 alarms,” Davis said.
Thames Water allowed the sewage pumping station to operate with no automatically available standby pump for around 10 months in the year prior to the pollution.”
A ‘regrettable incident’
In addition to the £2m fine, Judge Ross ordered Thames Water to pay full costs of £79,991.57.
The company’s director of sustainability and external affairs, Richard Aylard, said in a statement that Thames Water had made a “series of improvements” since the incident.
“We take our role in protecting the environment extremely seriously and are really sorry for what happened in 2015,” the statement reads.
“We have made a series of improvements since this regrettable incident, including bringing in more people, more maintenance, more training and better systems. In the three-and-a-half-years since, we have not had a serious incident at any of our 4,700 pumping stations.
“We would like to reassure our customers that we continue to innovate and drive further improved performance right across the business, to help us achieve our ambition of zero pollutions.”
Of the £2m fine, Thames Water has agreed to donate £200,000 to environmental charities in Oxfordshire.