'Unswimmable': Thousands of sewage pollution alerts on Britain's coast in last year

25 November 2021, 00:01

Surfers Against Sewage said some days were rendered "unswimmable"
Surfers Against Sewage said some days were rendered "unswimmable". Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Thousands of alerts of sewage discharge into Britain's coastline were issued in the last year, a report has said.

Parts of the coast were made "unswimmable" because of sewage pollution near beaches, Surfers Against Sewage claim.

They blame storm overflows, which send untreated sewage into the seas and rivers to stop drains overflowing in heavy rain, and claim the problem is getting worse.

The campaign group used data on notifications of sewage discharges issued by water companies and puts out a real-time sewage alert through a "safer seas and rivers service" to warn anyone using waterways and the sea about potential pollution.

Read more: Govt U-turns on dumping of raw sewage in English rivers after huge backlash

Its report found 5,517 sewer overflow discharge notifications were issued by water companies for England and Wales in the year to September – up 87.6% on the 2020 figure of 2,941.

A total of 3,328 were issued in the summer bathing season, up from 1,195 in last year's report.

One in six days of that season were considered "unswimmable", campaigners said.

A total of 6,656 swimming days during that period were lost because notifications are kept live for two days to ensure the pollution has dispersed. That accounts for 16% of days in the bathing season.

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The increase is down to more notifications and locations being provided by water companies but Surfers Against Sewage said there was no direct correlation between heavier rainfall and more discharges.

The group also warned data is only available for coastal areas and some companies only provided data during the bathing season, meaning the figures could be conservative, but businesses have now agreed to provide notifications for the entire year.

There were also 286 reports of sickness from water users, with 30% happening within two days of a sewage overflow discharge or a warning of possible pollution.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: "The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected.

"Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo.

"Loopholes in laws and systematically defunded regulators have left water companies to run amok."

He added: "We need water companies to clean up their act and commit to a decade of change to ensure our rivers and coastlines are thriving with people and wildlife again."

The Environment Agency and Ofwat have launched an investigation into whether water companies are releasing unpermitted sewage into rivers and waterways from treatment sites.

A spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: "Water companies recognise the urgent need for action to protect and enhance our rivers and seas.

"Our recent 21st Century Rivers report sets out the key steps needed to achieve the radical changes we all want to see, including calling on Government to bring forward legislation in a new Rivers Act that will provide greater protection for rivers in law.

"We know we need to go further and water companies want to invest more to improve infrastructure and stop harm from storm overflows and outfalls."