Utility company Thames Water has been served with a record fine of £20.4m after leaking nearly two billion litres of untreated sewerage into the River Thames.
The prosecution featured six separate cases – which caused widespread, repeated, sustained and avoidable pollution at a number of sites from 2012 to 2014 – brought together in one hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court on Wednesday last week.
It is the biggest freshwater pollution case in the Environment Agency’s (EA) 20-year history and involved treatment works at Didcot and Henley as well as a large sewerage pumping system in Littlemore in Oxford.
Spills also occurred at treatment works in Aylesbury, Little Marlow and Arborfield.
The total figures found by the judge included 1.9 billion litres of ‘untreated’ sewerage and 4.2 billion litres of ‘treated and inadequately treated’ sewerage to the Thames or its tributaries.
Thames Water’s repeated illegal leaking of sewage into the river and its tributaries resulted in major environmental damage including visible sewage along 14km of the river, and the death of birds, fish and invertebrates, the EA said.
Henley MP John Howell said the prosecution was “right and proper” but that there “should be no triumphalism in the outcome”.
The sewage treatment works in the town polluted the River Thames via the Fawley Court Stream between May 2013 and June 2014, resulting in the death of fish and a detrimental and long term impact on Temple Island Meadows, a site of special scientific interest, the EA said.
Mr Howell said the reports on the incidents “make depressing reading” but that he is “pleased” Thames Water has promised a ‘substantial investment’ into wildlife projects.
The Didcot works polluted the Moor Ditch tributary in April 2013.
The contamination was spotted by a cyclist who saw a black cloud of polluted water containing toilet roll, sanitary towels and other solids.
Judge Francis Sheridan condemned the “disgraceful conduct” of Thames Water, which he said was “entirely foreseeable and preventable”.
It was “a very dark period in the history of Thames Water” who demonstrated “scant regard for the law, with dreadful results for people who live in the area,” he added.
Anne Brosnan, the EA’s chief prosecutor, said: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works.
“Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”
In a statement, Thames Water’s CEO, Steve Robinson, who was appointed in September 2016, said: “We deeply regret each of these incidents at six of our sites during the period 2012-14.
“Since then we’ve reviewed how we do things at all levels and made a number of key changes.
“As a result, our performance has significantly improved.
“We understand our huge responsibilities to the environment, have learned from these serious events, and continue to invest at the rate of around £20 million a week on continually improving our service to our customers and the environment.”
The utility firm is to hold open days at six sites later this year to display their improvements to the public and have set aside £1.5 million for projects to improve the river, its wildlife and surrounding environment at the affected locations.