Thames Water sewage fine a ‘drop in the ocean’ says campaigners

'To them, fines are just the cost of doing business'

water pollution

Campaigners have said the fine issued to Thames Water after the company’s serious sewage spill is just a ‘drop in the ocean’, citing that fines are just the ‘cost of doing business’ for private companies.

Thames Water were fined £3.3 million following a ‘significant and lengthy’ releases of sewage into the Gatwick Stream and River Mole.

Over 1,400 fish were killed after millions of litres of undiluted sewage were discharged into the two rivers in Sussex and Surrey in 2017.

During the hearing, the judge believed that Thames Water had demonstrated a ‘deliberate attempt’ to mislead the Environment Agency, by denying responsibility in a report to the regulator and omitting water readings.

We Own It, a public ownership campaign organisation, said the fine was a ‘drop in the ocean’, referring the fact that last year the company paid out over £37 million in ‘internal’ dividends.

The campaign group commented how, to the water companies, ‘fines are just the cost of doing business’. The group have led calls for the water industry to be brought into public ownership as the only way to put people and the planet before profit.

Last year England’s beaches faced 8,500 hours of sewage dumping and the campaign organisation has argued that regulation and fines won’t solve the sewage crisis.

The Environment Agency has had its funding cut by 50% over the last decade, making it difficult to hold water companies to account. Whilst We Own It said fines are too small to have any impact and the companies are set to prioritise making profits for shareholders meaning they’re incentive is to invest as little as possible in infrastructure.

Reacting to the fine, Surfers Against Sewage said the company “must be held accountable for their financial mismanagement, and lack of care for the environment and people. We need urgent action to end sewage pollution.”

The Labour Party said the fine was ‘significant’ and ‘highlights the seriousness of the offence’, but questioned the length of time taken for it to be delivered.

In their statement, Labour said: “This is a significant fine for Thames Water which highlights the seriousness of the offence.

“But it shouldn’t have taken 5 years to get to this point, which is why Labour’s plan for water would deliver automatic fines for sewage discharges.”  

The court was told by the persecutor how the Thames Water sewage spill was an ‘accident waiting to happen’, whilst the defendant for Thames Water claimed there was a ‘faulty switch’ and that ‘it shouldn’t have happened and Thames deeply regrets the event’.

Calls to bring Thames Water into public ownership have intensified as the utility company struggles under a £14 billion pile of debt it has racked up, whilst having paid out £2.7 billion in dividends.

Southern Water holds the record for highest fine received from a water company after being forced to pay £90 million for deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea between 2010 and 2015.

The offence was said to be due to ‘negligence’ and ‘committed deliberately’ by Southern Water’s board of directors.

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

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