UK sewer overflows poison relations across the Channel

EU lawmakers have a new, post-Brexit reason to be annoyed with the UK: overflows of British sewage seeping into the English Channel and the North Sea.

Heavy rain after weeks of dry weather overwhelmed parts of Britain’s sewage system last week, sending untreated sewage into rivers and seas. The issue is a long-standing issue in Britain, where regulators are investigating possible permit breaches by six major water companies and environmental groups say the companies have failed to make necessary repairs.

It’s mainly a problem for the UK, where people were warned to stay away from dozens of beaches last week, raising concerns about public health and damage to wildlife. Activist group Surfers Against Sewage reported 654 sewer overflow alerts discharging sewage into bathing waters this summer from 171 sites in England and Wales.

But three French members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the European Commission on Wednesday warning that sewage could also threaten bathing waters, fishing grounds and biodiversity in the European Union.

“The English Channel and the North Sea are not dumping grounds,” said Stephanie Yon-Courtin, a member of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee and local MP in Normandy.

“We cannot allow the environment, the economic activity of our fishermen and the health of our citizens to be put at serious risk by the UK’s repeated negligence in the management of its waste water,” she said. declared.

Lawmakers have asked the Commission “to use all political and legal means at its disposal” to find a solution, accusing the UK of breaching its post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. They said that while the UK was no longer bound by EU environmental standards, it was still a signatory to the UN Convention on Maritime Rights and obliged to protect shared sea water.

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The European Commission said it had not yet contacted London about the complaints. “We will pursue the matter further as appropriate,” Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said Thursday.

Britain’s Conservative government has dismissed the criticism, saying it has tightened water quality regulations since Brexit.

“Unnecessary and ill-informed comments like this should not distract from the work we are doing to further protect our rivers and sea,” said Steve Double, Britain’s water minister. “We have already legislated for water companies to reduce the frequency and volume of wastewater discharges, and our upcoming storm overflow discharge reduction plan will require water companies to implement the largest program of infrastructure in the history of water companies.”

But last week the opposition Liberal Democrats released a report alleging sewage discharges were not being properly recorded because many of the required monitoring devices were not working properly or had not yet been installed.

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While UK water companies are not allowed to discharge untreated sewage under normal circumstances, they are allowed to make such discharges when heavy rain threatens to overwhelm sewage treatment plants. Environmental groups allege that some companies are exploiting this exception to save money and avoid upgrading their systems.

During the Brexit breakdown talks, the EU has repeatedly voiced concerns that the UK is abandoning the bloc’s tough environmental standards and bowing to corporate pressure for a more deregulated system that could put their shared environment at risk. .

The trade deal which came into effect in 2021 after Britain left the EU contains no specific provisions on how to deal with stormwater overflows.

Water UK, which represents water and sewer companies, said its members were investing £3billion to tackle overflows as part of a national environmental improvement program between 2020 and 2025. He recognized “an urgent need for action to address environmental damage caused by spills from storm overflows and sewage treatment works.

“Water companies cannot do this alone, so we are also calling on government, regulators, water companies, agriculture and other sectors to come together as soon as possible to come up with a comprehensive national plan. “, said the water industry group. .

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