Severn Trent Water fined £2 million for ‘reckless’ pollution

Severn Trent Water has been ordered to pay a fine of £2,072,000 for allowing huge amounts of raw sewage to discharge into the River Trent from Strongford Wastewater Treatment Works (WTW) near Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, between November 2019 and February 2020. 

In a case brought by the Environment Agency at Cannock Magistrates, Stafford, on Monday 19 February 2024, District Judge Kevin Grego concluded that there was a reckless failure by the company to have in place and implement a proper system of contingency planning.

The company had pleaded guilty at a previous hearing to two charges of illegally discharging raw sewage. The judge fined the company £1,072,000 and £1,000,000 plus costs of £16,476.67 and a victim’s surcharge of £181.

The court heard that over the course of the incident approximately 470 million litres of raw sewage was discharged, approximately 260 million of this illegally as it was in contravention of the conditions of the Environmental Permit.

On 14 February 2020 a report was received by the Environment Agency from Severn Trent Water that there was an issue with the screw pumps at the inlet to Strongford WTW.

It said that two of the three pumps had failed, and this was causing crude sewage to go to the storm overflow and from there to the River Trent.

It became apparent that one of the screw pumps had previously failed back in December 2019 due to a gear box malfunction and a replacement was in the process of being made in Germany as there was no supplier in the UK.

The court was told that Flow to Full Treatment (level of sewage and rain, or flow, that a sewage treatment works must treat before it is permitted to discharge) limits had been altered manually by staff at Strongford WTW and with the full knowledge of the site manager.

This was evidenced within Severn Trent Water’s own logbooks for the site and had been happening for some time. This was a breach of the environmental permit and changes to the FFT limits were recorded on 18 different dates between November 2019 to February 2020.

A second pump then failed on 14 February 2020 again due to an issue with the gearbox. This meant that there was only one functioning pump and this couldn’t cope with any increases in rainfall, increases that caused sewage to prematurely overflow into the river.

During this incident approximately 700–1000 litres per second of untreated sewage discharged into the River Trent.

It was pure good luck that levels in the river were high due to Storm Ciara and as a result the impact was reduced. A similar pollution incident at a downstream pumping station had previously led to a major fish kill.

However, it took five days for the site to come back into compliance, as an emergency pump had to be sent from Holland.

The judge said the submissions by Severn Trent were “Panglossian” (extremely optimistic) and he added:

“The risk as set out above was real. The amount of untreated sewage over more than five days flowing into the water system was enormous.

“Those who live in the affected area and pay STW to provide clean drinking water and safely treat sewage would not consider it to be otherwise.”

The incident was further compounded by Storm Dennis which arrived on 15 February 2020.

Robbie Moore, the Minister for Water and Rural Growth, said:

“It is absolutely right that those who damage our natural environment pay for their actions.

“No-one should profit from illegal behaviour and that’s why last week we announced a crackdown on bonuses for water company bosses.

“Severn Trent’s fine will be put into our Water Restoration Fund, which will channel money directly back into projects that improve water quality. And through our Plan for Water we are delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement – ensuring those who pollute our waters are held to account.”

Adam Shipp, a Senior Environment Officer at the Environment Agency and who led the investigation, said: 

“Severn Trent were fortunate that this incident did not cause a catastrophic pollution in the Trent as the river already had high flows when the discharge occurred.

“Our investigation showed that their contingency plans were woefully inadequate with a major pump being out of action for 52 days prior to the incident.

“Even though Severn Trent knew Storm Clara and Storm Dennis were about to arrive they did not think to proactively source alternative pumps and get them to site.

“When the second of the three pumps failed it made sourcing and installing a replacement pump very difficult and as a consequence the works was not properly functioning for another five days and eight hours.

“This is not the sort of response we would expect to see from a professional multi-national company and as a consequence they have now put in place on site measures to ensure that an incident like this does not happen again.”

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