Southern Water fined £25,000 for estuary pollution

Southern Water (SW) was fined £25,000 and order to pay costs of £5,467 after pleading guilty to allowing unscreened sewage to be illegally discharged from its Southampton sewage treatment works.

SW pled guilty to the offences at Southampton Crown Court last Friday (September 30), after sewage discharge from its Woolston Sewage treatment works entered the Itchen Estuary, resulting in dangerous levels of the bacteria E.coli for shellfish.

The harbour contains several commercial shellfish beds designated under the EU Shellfish Waters Directive.

The Environment Agency (EA) investigated the incident, which took place between November 16 and 17 2009, after SW reported that there had been a failure of screens at the site.

According to the EA, the spill was caused by blockages of debris in the screens that caused the majority of sewage to bypass any treatment and discharge straight into the harbor for nearly 26 hours.

On a visit to the site, EA officers found storm overflows activating prematurely and at lower levels than they should have been, which resulted in a large quantity of untreated effluent to be discharged into the river within the intertidal zone where there is less dilution.

Although an alarm system was in operation to warn the company of any problems, SW failed to take action, and as a result the incident was only discovered during a routine inspection.

Following contamination, shellfish beds were closed at Southampton Water south of Itchen Bridge, and did not reopen until December 14 2009 when E. coli bacteria returned to safe levels.

Commenting on the incident, Bill Scott from the EA said: “It is clear that the situation at Woolston sewage treatment works could no longer be tolerated. The discharges continued over a period of a day without anything being done to prevent them and without the Environment Agency being informed about the problems at the site.

“It is very disappointing that Southern Water did not have planned maintenance programmes, contracts and spare parts available to deal with such a major breakdown with their systems, particularly when they were fully aware how environmentally sensitive the harbour is.

“I hope this case sends out a clear message to Southern Water that any pollution must be avoided or stopped as soon as possible.”

Carys Matthews

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