Water Giant Referred to Information Watchdog for Withholding Environmental Information
Severn Trent Water, the UK’s second largest water company, has been referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) by Fish Legal for refusing to disclose information about operations at its Worcester sewage treatment works.
The water company has a permit to discharge both ‘storm’ sewage and treated sewage into the River Severn at Diglis, in Worcester city centre. The ICO has been asked by Fish Legal to consider whether the utility giant has acted lawfully in rejecting requests for details about these sewage discharges and the works’ maintenance programme in 2022. Severn Trent Water is required to keep maintenance records to demonstrate compliance with its discharge consent and that they are operating the works in a manner that minimises the polluting effects into the river. Severn Trent has argued, however that such records do not constitute environmental information.
In 2021, the works spilled ‘storm’ sewage 81 times for a total of 1051 hours into the Severn. Unusually high levels of phosphate have been recorded by Worcester Angling Society just downstream of the works since members started taking water samples in July 2021. That work led to a pilot project being set up by the Angling Trust for the River Severn catchment which was later rolled out nationally as the Angling Trust Water Quality Monitoring Network.
Penelope Gane, Head of Practice at Fish Legal, said: “In 2015, we won a long legal battle against the ICO, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water and the Government that made privatised water companies subject to Environmental Information Regulations. The lasting legacy of this landmark case is that any member of the public can ask for environmental information directly from privatised water companies operating in England and Wales and they are under a legal duty to supply it, except in very limited circumstances.”
She added: “Since that ruling, some water companies have been as creative as possible to avoid their legal duties. It’s almost as if they have something to hide. But we are prepared to challenge them because the public right to access information has been critical in exposing poor and potentially illegal activity in the water industry.”
Glyn Marshall, the Chairman of Worcester Angling Society, said “I was fishing the Lower Severn downstream of the treatment works after a flood in Spring 2021. I noticed that there were pant liners and other debris trapped in the bankside vegetation. I came home and decided to do something about it. Catches on our club water below the works had been fluctuating for several years. I did not want my local River Severn to follow the demise of the River Wye so I personally started monitoring the river. The results were shocking, off the scale of my phosphate meter and the levels were high below the works. The Angling Trust Water Quality Monitoring Network was set up as a pilot on the River Severn based on the work I was doing.”