A BBC Panorama investigation, broadcast on Monday, obtained 200 reports about pollution incidents at United Utilities' sewage works in 2022. Documents supplied by whistleblowers from the Environment Agency show that in more than 60 of the 200 reports, pollution incidents were wrongly downgraded to the lowest level.
Category 4 events are not counted in published figures because they are supposed to have had no environmental impact – meaning that the title of ‘best performing company in England in 2022’ on polluting, awarded to them based on Environment Agency figures, has been called into question.
The dozens of wrongly downgraded cases included a discharge in June 2022 into Lake Windermere in the Lake District, in Cumbria. Sewage was pumped into the lake for more than three hours, in an event which was initially thought to be a Category 2 incident, but was downgraded to Category 4. The Environment Agency did not attend.
In fact, while pollution incident reports are signed off by the Environment Agency, the BBC claimed that the EA have visited just six of the 931 reported pollution incidents in the past three years. This means that the water companies are effectively allowed to self-police when it comes to water polluting.
United Utilities said that they “strongly reject” the accusations and pushed the blame back onto the EA: “The Environment Agency, not United Utilities, determines both the initial and final categorisation of pollution incidents. This is its role as the regulator.”
If the accusations are true – and it is unlikely that the BBC’s flagship investigations programme would have got these claims past the BBC lawyers if they were not heavily evidenced – then this leaves an awful lot of questions, not just for UU, but also for their friends at the RSPB.
We have asked before how the RSPB, ('Give Nature a Home') can justify the fact that far from criticising UU, it has actually been working in the most intimate partnership with United Utilities for years. What’s over 60 serious reports of sewage pollution into our water courses, when measured against the rewards of working hand in glove with these massive land owning businesses?
RSPB have championed United Utilities and facilitated the corporate greenwashing to such an extent that United Utilities’ Head of Sustainability, Chris Matthews, has said that:
“Our water catchment land is situated in some of the most beautiful and sensitive landscapes in the UK. We are acutely aware of the responsibilitythat goes with this land ownership and we do our best to balance all the needs of water, wildlife, conservation and visitors. We’re incredibly proud of what’s been achieved in partnership with the RSPB at Dove Stone and Haweswater and it’s a real pleasure to see the recognition in this award.”
In 2021, CEOs at RSPB and United Utilities formalised a working relationship through which they claimed that "wildlife, water quality and local communities will all benefit through nature-based solutions". The RSPB’s chief executive, Beccy Speight said: “Together the RSPB and United Utilities have been harnessing the power of nature to tackle climate change in some of our most iconic landscapes.
So how can the RSPB still stand by and allow United Utilities to make these greenwashing statements when water quality is almost certainly being degraded by the tonnes of sewage pumped into British lakes and rivers? Lake Windermere, in particular, is suffering from hugely degraded water quality, with frequent algal blooms and a complete lack of wildlife. Can anyone be surprised when United Utilities are pumping raw sewage into it, while the Environement Agency looks on benignly?