Water company fails to act fast enough on major sewage spill

A major water company is awaiting sentencing after a court heard how it had badly managed a huge sewage spill, allowing some 4 million litres to flow into the sea at the height of the tourist season.

South West Water (SWW) had initially denied responsibility for the leak in Teignmouth despite clear evidence of a major spill near one of its pumping stations but Environment Agency investigators eventually traced the source of the effluent back to a leaking sewer pipe below the level of the pumping station’s storm tank overflow.

After a four day hearing culminating on Wednesday, June 29, magistrates found SWW guilty of illegally discharging sewage into the Teign Estuary while it was carrying out repairs to a sewer.

Sentencing has been adjourned but the company is expected to face stiff penalties.

The court heard how, two years ago, warning signs were put up by the local council on holiday beaches at the popular South Devon resorts of Teignmouth and Shaldon after tons of sewage flowed into the estuary from a leak at nearby Bishopsteignton.

The spill occurred during the summer in 2003 when Teignmouth was busy with visitors and the town’s annual carnival was in full swing.

At the height of the incident around 135,000 litres of sewage an hour was flowing into the Teign Estuary and an estimated 4 million litres reached the sea in total.

Failure to prevent the avoidable spill was an offence under the Water Resources Act 1991.

The leak was discovered when two EA officers noticed a strong smell of sewage as they returned to the harbourside from a routine sampling trip. Stepping ashore from their boat, the officers saw sewage flowing past the slipway and down the river towards the docks.

Later the same day the water company contacted the agency to say it had shut down two pumping stations the previous day to repair a rising sewer main at Bishopsteignton.

The pumping stations, at Bishopsteignton and Milford Park, receive sewage from the 16,000 population of Teignmouth and Shaldon.

Sewage continued to be pumped to Milford Park from two other pumping stations after its pumps had been switched off, causing emergency storage tanks to rapidly fill and sewers to back up.

The end result was sewage overflowing into a local stream and being carried into the estuary.

The court was told the pollution could have been avoided if SWW had followed its own procedures and run its own computer model to predict the consequences of any action taken by the company.

The EA was not informed of the problems until August 1, more than 24 hours after the pumps had been switched off and more than 12 hours after the first sewage spill reached the Teign.

The sewage discharge continued for over 30 hours.

Magistrates heard the water company could have prevented most of the spill by using the storage capacity at two other local pumping stations, but had failed to do so.

A water sample taken by the EA from a contaminated section of the brook the during the incident confirmed the presence of raw sewage at concentrations far higher than the EC Bathing Water Directive standards had they applied at this point.

“This was a major incident that could have easily been avoided had South West Water exercised more care in the planning of its repair works,” said Geoff Bateman, a spokesman for the EA.

“The sensitivity of the location should have been recognised as should the environmental risks associated with such works.

“The company’s failure to act resulted in a significant and prolonged discharge of crude sewage into the Teign Estuary putting at risk the health of bathers and other water users”.

By Sam Bond

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