As many of you know, I have been working on improving the ecology of the River Thame long-term since a disastrous pollution incident in 2013 that killed almost all animal life in the upper part of the river. I chaired Save The River Thame, which became part of the River Thame Conservation Trust which now has over 120 volunteers (www.riverthame.org). I also chair biannual liaison meetings with Thames Water at the Aylesbury Sewage Treatment Works (I do get to all the best places!).
Since 2013, the Environment Agency has been building a criminal case against Thames Water for dereliction of duty at its sewage works and pollution of rivers and other water bodies and the company has pleaded guilty on almost all counts. I attended the Sentencing Hearing proceedings against Thames Water at Aylesbury Crown Court on Thu and Fri this week, which was interesting and truly shocking to us all.
In 2013, the EA was bombarded with complaints and problems relating to TW’s plants and the waterways around them and at this hearing, we heard the horrifying detail about negligence at Aylesbury, Little Marlow, Henley, Didcot and Littlemoor between November 2012 and February 2014.
Sewage treatment works (STW’s) were being run below capacity, equipment wasn’t being maintained properly, rag was being allowed to clog essential equipment, alarms were ignored (sometimes for weeks), and senior management oversight seems to have been entirely missing. The result was that at at Aylesbury STW from about Dec 2012 to July 2013, storm tanks were being left full to overflowing for months, allowing almost raw sewage into the Thame. At all the sites, raw sewage, along with rag (sanitary towels, condoms etc ) was encountered in streams, across footpaths and over entire fields around Marlow. There were periods when faeces and other material were floating on the Thames and coating the banks below Marlow.
Customer alerts and complaints were often ignored and letters to directors of the company ignored.
The judge was evidently horrified and very angry as the litany of appalling reports was gone through by the barrister. Owing to the huge number of contraventions to be covered, the prosecution only completed its case on Friday afternoon and the Judge will listen to the defence statement of mitigation on Feb 13th. Sentence will then be passed on Feb 22nd on the many counts. He said, regarding the level of fines “A message will be sent that DOES deter…” He pointed out that there was a tendency on the part of teh water companies to appear very contrite and to promise change, but a while later, matters would be in a bad state again. He thought that ‘light touch regulation’ wasn’t working.
I will be interviewed on BBC 3 Counties Radio at 7.20 on Monday morning about all this and have also been interviewed by BBC South Today. Media attention is picking up, which is excellent, but if we want to have a healthy environment with good biodiversity, we need the utilities companies to do their jobs properly, and that will require a higher level of public interest.
When I set up Save The River Thame, my reasoning was that Thames Water had to know that the local community cared about the river and countryside, so the liaison meetings and river monitoring represent the achievement of my original objectives. What has been revealed through this case has raised the stakes and makes public interest and involvement even more essential now and into the future. Apathy or complacency will only end in the same thing happening again – you cannot trust corporations to take due care of the environment.