Thames Water questioned over sewage leaks in London

Representatives of Thames Water and the Environment Agency were questioned over the release of raw sewage into the River Thames at a meeting of the London Assembly's Health and Public Services Committee this week.

Approximately 600,000 tons of raw sewage and urban run off was diverted in to the river during August’s storms to prevent it flooding the streets (see related story). The incident led to the death of thousands of fish and has also led to an enquiry in to the health implications for those using the river for sports purposes (see related story).

At the time the Environment Agency said in a statement: “London’s network cannot properly even cope with moderate rainfall and regularly sees these discharges occurring, on average 50-60 times a year. Some mitigation procedures – such as Thames Water launching its oxygenating vessels – prevent fishkills, however they do not solve the ongoing problem.”

During the London meeting the Environment Agency confirmed that the only real solution was to build a tunnel 20 miles long which would run under London and prevent future deluges of sewage being pumped into the Thames. It would also greatly reduce the more frequent, smaller occurrences of untreated sewage overflowing into the Thames.

Despite this, Ofwat, the water regulator, has said in its draft price determinations it would not allow Thames Water to increase its charges to pay for a solution (see related story).

Thames Water has spent £4 million on a study which revealed the tunnel would take about 10 years to build and would cost £1.5 billion. The company also confirmed that all of this cost would be passed on to bill payers if the scheme went ahead, rather than the company itself investing anything.

This is in spite of the fact that Thames Water posted first-quarter operating earnings of £200 million this year, while its parent company, RWE, has seen its share prices nearly double since September 2003.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has called for greater investment to prevent the sewage overflows. He said he is going to call on Ofwat to re-examine their draft decision and allow Thames Water to increase its charges so that work on the sewer tunnel – the Thames Interceptor scheme – can progress.

“London is a world class city and our drainage network must be invested in to keep our river a world class river. I am convinced that a sewer tunnel scheme is the most appropriate solution to the problem of untreated sewage discharging into the Thames. This overflow tunnel would link thirty five or so overflow points running from Hammersmith to Thamesmead and would be about seven metres in diameter, which is slightly larger than one of the proposed Crossrail tunnels,” Mr Livingstone said.

He added that he would lobby environment minister Elliot Morley to ask him to examine Ofwat’s decision.

Thames Water now plans to undertake another study into possible alternative, smaller scale and short term solutions to ease the over flow and sewage problems in London. Currently there are 3,000 homes on the ‘at risk’ register from sewage flooding.

Dee Doocey, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Health Spokesperson, said:

“The failure of both the company and of regulators to promote a long term solution to the pollution of the Thames is simply breathtaking. Ministers are stalling, Thames Water is buck passing whilst customers and people using the Thames continue to suffer. More studies into the feasibility of a waste tunnel will cause yet more delays and cause costs to escalate further. Water bill payers have already had to fork out at least £4 million on investigations and the problem still remains unsolved.”

“Everyone knows what needs to be done but no-one is actually doing it. The whole process of cleaning up our river appears to be up sewage creek without a paddle,” she added.

Members of the public were invited to address questions to Thames Water using the committee’s question sheets available from their website.

By David Hopkins

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