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Thames Water Fined £3.3m for Massive Sewage Discharge Resulting in Fish Deaths

Company's deliberate attempt to mislead authorities and failure to address problem areas leads to significant penalty

Thames Water, the utility company responsible for serving 15 million households, has been fined £3.3 million following a court hearing at Lewes Crown Court. The company pleaded guilty to four charges brought by the Environment Agency after discharging millions of litres of undiluted sewage into the Gatwick Stream in Sussex and River Mole in Surrey, resulting in the death of over 1,400 fish.

During the sentencing, Judge Christine Laing KC expressed her belief that Thames Water deliberately attempted to mislead the Environment Agency. The company omitted water readings and submitted a report denying responsibility, showing a “deliberate attempt” to deceive the regulator.

The court heard that in October 2017, there was a “significant and lengthy” release of sewage from treatment works near Gatwick Airport. A storm pump unexpectedly activated and filled up the storm tank for 21 hours, causing sewage to spill into the rivers for an estimated six hours. However, no alarm system was in place to alert staff to the overspill. When an alarm was finally heard, the lead technician was uncontactable due to a lack of a functioning mobile phone.

Judge Laing criticized Thames Water for the environmental disaster resulting from issues that should have been addressed promptly. She found it “utterly extraordinary” that such incidents could occur due to negligence in problem areas.

Thames Water has a history of pollution spillages, having received 20 previous fines. The company’s future is under scrutiny due to mounting debt concerns.

Last week, the company’s chief executive, Sarah Bentley, resigned from her role after two years, foregoing her bonus in response to the sewage spills.

Following the court hearing, Jamie Lloyd, a senior officer at the Environment Agency, highlighted Thames Water’s attempts to mislead the investigations. The company failed to inform the agency when the alarm at the sewage works was triggered and subsequently challenged the agency to remove the incident from its records.

The Environment Agency stated that Thames Water had allowed untreated sewage to pour into rivers even outside storm conditions, which is illegal. A stretch of river measuring nearly 5km, known for housing protected species such as European eel and brown trout, was deemed to be in grave danger.

The agency also revealed that the storm lagoon was only three-quarters of its legally-required size, leading to early sewage discharge into the rivers and providing inadequate protection to fish. Mitigation measures were available but overlooked, and staff had rated equipment as “unsatisfactory” both before and after the incident.

Thames Water’s sustainability director, Richard Ayland, acknowledged the incident but highlighted the company’s efforts to improve. He stated that a new chief executive had been working on a turnaround plan for the past three years, setting the company on a path towards a more secure future for both the company and the environment.

The fine paid by Thames Water will be directed to a treasury fund. However, future fines and penalties imposed on water companies for environmental violations will be reinvested into the government’s water restoration fund. The current record for the largest fine against a water company for illegal sewage discharge is held by Southern Water at £90 million.

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