The water company was ordered to pay £19.75m plus costs in Aylesbury Crown Court for offences at six facilities in the Thames Valley during the period 2012-14. This is by far the largest penalty imposed on a water company for an environmental breach.

The company was prosecuted for each of the six pollution offences collectively by the Environment Agency.

The facilities involved were five sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley, Little Marlow and Arborfield, and Littlemore sewage pumping station.

According to reports in the national media, Judge Francis Sheridan, who delivered the sentence on Wednesday (22 March) said: “The fact that Thames Water takes its name from the River Thames does not make it their property to poison and pollute.”

The Guardian has quoted Sheridan as saying: “I have to make the fine sufficiently large that [Thames Water] get the message.” He described the breaches as “wicked”, and said: “One has to get the message across to the shareholders that the environment is to be treasured and protected, and not poisoned.”

Commenting on the fine, Thames Water chief executive Steve Robertson, appointed in September 2016, said: “We deeply regret each of these incidents at six of our sites during the period 2012-14. We asked for these incidents to be considered and sentenced together, because it was clear that our performance in this part of our region, at that time, was not up to the very high standards that we and our customers expect.

“Since then we’ve reviewed how we do things at all levels and made a number of key changes. These have included increasing the numbers of staff in key operational roles and investing heavily to improve reliability. As a result, our performance has significantly improved. We understand our huge responsibilities to the environment, have learned from these serious events, and continue to invest at the rate of around £20m a week on continually improving our service to our customers and the environment.

“We will be holding open days at each of these sites later this year so our customers and stakeholders can see the improvements we have made and speak to the operational teams who work hard to maintain high standards at the works. In addition, we will be adding £1.5m to our Community Investment Fund, ring-fenced for projects to improve the river, its wildlife and surrounding environment at the affected locations.”

Thames Water serves 15 million customers, operates 350 sewage works across London and the Thames Valley, and is responsible for 68,000 miles of sewer pipes. It recycles 4.4 billion litres of sewage safely back to the environment every day – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The company’s previous largest fine was £1m, which it was ordered to pay in January 2016 for polluting the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire with sewage.

At the time, the fine was the largest seen in the UK water industry. However, the record was quickly topped in December 2016 by Southern Water, which was fined a record £2m for flooding beaches in Kent with raw sewage.

The Guardian reported that the EA had called the event “catastrophic”, and the judge at Maidstone Crown Court said that Southern Water’s repeat offending was “wholly unacceptable”.

Lois Vallely

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

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