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Water company fined record £90m for dumping sewage thousands of times

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Southern Water has been fined a record £90m after pleading guilty to dumping sewage thousands of times in the space of five years.

The company admitted to causing 6,971 unlawful sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015, which lasted a total of 61,704 hours – the equivalent to one pipe leaking continuously for more than seven years.

Tonnes of waste polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex during the five-year period, causing major harm to protected areas, conservation sites and oyster beds.

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The case is the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history and saw Southern Water formally plead guilty to 51 pollution offences from 16 wastewater treatment works and one storm overflow.

Giving his sentence at Canterbury Crown Court, the Honourable Mr Justice Johnson said the company’s behaviour was “shocking”.

He said: “Each of the 51 offences seen in isolation shows a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosystems along the North Kent and Solent coastlines, for human health, and for the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters.”

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The court also heard how Southern Water deliberately presented a misleading picture of compliance to the Environment Agency, hindering proper regulation of the company.

The agency’s successful prosecution has secured the largest fine for environmental pollution by a water company to date.

Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “With nature in crisis, no one should profit from undermining environmental laws.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow blamed the coronavirus crisis for the new delay
Image: Environment minister Rebecca Pow

“This sentence shows fines for environmental offences are starting to reach the same level as the highest fines for crimes in financial services and that is good.

“Polluters must pay, the Environment Agency will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that they do.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow condemned the company’s failures, saying they are “wholly unacceptable”.

She said: “Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished by the full force of the law.

“This fine, the largest ever imposed on a water company, is absolutely appropriate and welcomed. It will rightly be paid solely from the company’s operating profits, rather than customer bills.”

Southern Water chief executive Ian McAuley has apologised for the offences.

He said: “I am deeply sorry for the historic incidents which have led to today’s sentencing and fine.

“What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.”

In 2019, the firm received a huge £126m penalty from industry regulator Ofwat, as a result of its regulatory failings over the same period.