Water company fined £20m for treating rivers like ‘dumping grounds’ for raw sewage

Thames Water sewage Pollution
Support us and go ad-free

A court has fined Thames Water a record £20m for a sewage spill in 2013/2014. The company pumped nearly 1.5 billion litres of untreated sewage into the River Thames. But the fine is dwarfed by the profits Thames Water made for its shareholders.

Shocking mismanagement

The sewage spills happened at five Thames Water sites, in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley, Little Marlow and Littlemore. Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws. But the effects of the spills were far-reaching:

  • Hundreds of birds and fish died.
  • Sewage spilled into nature reserves.
  • Raw sewage went into the Thames.
  • Manholes overflowed.
  • It caused environmental damage in Henley and Marlow.

“Wicked” and “shocking”

The fine is the largest a court has ever given to a water utility company. And the Environment Agency (EA) said it was the largest case it has ever dealt with. Judge Francis Sheridan said that the spills occurred because Thames Water was running sewage pumps at half levels. He called Thames Water’s actions “wicked”, and noted that the company has a “continual failure to report incidents” and a “history of non-compliance”:

This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs… It should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions. One has to get the message across to the shareholders that the environment is to be treasured and protected, and not poisoned.

Rose O’Neill, UK Freshwater Policy Manager at the World Wildlife Fund, said:

There are around 1,500 sewer overflows across England releasing raw sewage into our rivers. [Water companies] simply can’t continue treating our rivers as their dumping ground.

Shrugging of shoulders

But Thames Water shareholders are probably not concerned about the fine. Because Thames Water’s profits dwarf its £20m fine. In 2015/16, it made an operating profit of £742m and paid out £82m in dividends to shareholders. And Thames Water’s owners probably don’t care about the fine, or the environmental damage, either. As they are a web of foreign groups and companies.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

Kemble Water Holdings Ltd bought Thames Water in 2007. It in turn is owned by a consortium of investment management companies, foreign governments like China [paywall] and the United Arab Emirates, and pension funds. On 14 March, Macquarie (an Australian infrastructure bank nicknamed ‘the vampire kangaroo‘) sold [paywall] its stake in Kemble Water for around £1.35bn. Canadian pension fund Borealis Infrastructure and the Kuwait Investment Authority bought the stake.

Thames Water Director Richard Aylard said:

We have failed in our responsibility to the environment and that hurts both personally and professionally, because we do care. We’ve also failed in our responsibility to our customers who pay us to provide an essential public service all the time, every day and not just some of the time, and we apologise for all of those failings.

We need a resolution

Thames Water’s £20m fine is welcome. But the case highlights a serious problem within our utility companies. Because how can foreign banks, pension funds and governments seriously be expected to concern themselves with the UK’s environment when their main motivators are profit? We need to have a real debate about the future of this country’s utility companies. Because nationalisation is long overdue.

Get Involved!

– Read more from The Canary’s Discovery section.

Featured image via screengrab

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed