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Raw sewage in Ouse contains 'cocktail of things'

Nouse speaks to Professor of Environmental Science Alistair Boxall

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Image Credit: Reuben Hodson

Concerns were raised by a York resident in September about raw sewage being emptied into the River Ouse close to Coney Street. Sanitary towels and wipes were seen floating down the river, on what the resident said was a regular occurrence. A spokesperson from The Environment Agency said “storm overflows are designed to discharge diluted sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. However, blockages in the sewers, often caused by fats and wet wipes being flushed and poured down the drains, can cause the overflows. “The Environment Agency is working actively with Yorkshire Water to ensure overflows in York are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped.”

This policy of untreated sewage being let into rivers and the sea during storm overflows has been used across the UK. Shocking images of sewage discharge have been recorded in hundreds of sites nationwide. The Environment Agency has said that there were 403,171 sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas in 2020, making 3.1 million hours of spillages in total. Between July 2019 and June 2020, a treatment works in Ilkley, run by Yorkshire Water, spilled into the River Wharfe for almost 2,200 hours, the equivalent of three months.

Recent pressure from environmental activists and a strong reaction from the public led to the issue being taken up by peers and MPs, led by Conservative MP Philipe Dunne, Chair of The Environment Audit Committee. Dunne had previously brought a private members bill to the Commons, which aimed to hold sewage treatment companies liable for sewage pumped into rivers, but the bill ran out of time. The campaign group End Sewage Pollution held protests in beaches from all along the coast, including at Whitstable, Margate, Falmouth and Cornwall. Made up of the River Trust, Surfers against Sewage, London Waterkeeper and British Canoeing, the coalition of environmental groups has been highly vocal in its critique of the government’s lack of action. Peers were bombarded with thousands of letters and emails calling for an end to raw sewage discharges. This led to the Duke of Wellington writing an amendment to the Environment Bill to include Dunne’s bill. This was passed by peers, but when moved to the Commons, the environment secretary George Eustice told MPs to vote against it.

22 Conservative MPs including Dunne rebelled against the government to vote for the amendment, but it still failed to pass. York Outer MP Julian Sturdy chose to vote against the amendment due to his fear that it would transfer “unlimited costs for cutting discharges right onto local residents.” In contrast, York Central MP Rachael Maskell voted in favour of the amendment, as she said “We know that the rivers flood in York, so that sewage could end up in people’s homes causing disease and sickness.” A statement by the government defended their position by saying “to eliminate storm overflows means trans - forming the entire Victorian sewage system to a whole new sewage system. It would be irresponsible for any government to spend an estimated preliminary cost of anywhere between £150bn to £650bn to transform the entire sewage system.”

It has also been found that in the last 11 years, nine English water companies have paid shareholders a total of £16.9bn in dividends; an annual average of £1.4bn. Critics argue that this has harmed the amount of money invested in sewage systems. According to a leak from a report on the Storm Overflow Taskforce, made up of the water industry, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, the cost of dealing with the worst and most damaging raw sewage discharges ranges from £3.9bn to £62.7bn. After another significant public and activist backlash, the government finally U-turned, promising to introduce their own version of the previous amendment. It will introduce new duties on water companies to ensure they effectively manage their drainage system to avoid overflows, and will in - vest £7.1bn on environmental improvements in England over the next five years. However, many have been skeptical about the provisions of the new amendment. Jo Maugham of the Good Law Project said “The proposal is not worth the paper it’s written on. It’s a confidence trick to the public.” “The duty is ‘to achieve a progressive reduction’. But that duty is meaningless.

If I was a water company and every year I reduced the amount of sewage I dumped by 1/10,000th I would be making a ‘progressive reduction’ but I could carry on dumping sh*t for 1000 years.” Maugham also identifies a clause in the amendment which says that the duty is enforceable only by the secretary of state: “Cold water swimmers, fishermen, grandparents, environmentalists are all banned from enforcing that theoretical right to compel a reduction in raw sewage dumping.”

Alistair Boxall, Professor of Environmental Science at The University of York told Nouse “The raw sewage will contain a real cocktail of things, there will be the bacteria we excrete which could include pathogens, a real mix of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, household cleaning products, microplastics and metals.

“For people coming into contact with the water it could cause illness. We know the pharmaceuticals can affect the behaviour of fish. You also find antibiotics, which are able to select for resistance in the environment, making them less effective.

“York is fairly typical in the UK for its rivers. Paracetamol is quite well removed by treatment plants, but if you have the overflows happening, the concentrations of paracetamol shoot up, which has happened in the River Ouse. Even when things are operating properly, we detect a whole mix of things. There are things which aren’t removed by treatment systems, which aren’t regulated. For example, we detect antibiotics at concentrations which we potentially worry about for resistance selection.

“The Water Framework Directive has a list of 45 substances which are regulated. But, for example, if we look at the products we keep in our bath - room, these contain more than 2000 substances, so regulating only these isn’t enough. For example, there is the contraceptive pill, which isn’t regulated, but we do worry about it.

“Biosolids are also an issue, as they contain chemicals that are not removed by sewage treatment, but are used as fertiliser by farmers. Biosolids can contain ‘forever’ chemicals which cause real problems because they never break down. “We need to be much more scientific in the way we regulate our emissions, wastewater and biosolids.”

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