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BBC Panorama investigation to highlight ‘disappearing’ North West pollution

A BBC investigation has revealed how water companies can make sewage pollution disappear from the official figures.

Leaked documents obtained by BBC Panorama, and due to screen this evening, suggest United Utilities, which supplies water to the North West of England including Manchester and Liverpool, wrongly downgraded dozens of pollution incidents last year.

The Environment Agency signed off all of the downgrades without attending any of the incidents. BBC Panorama spoke to whistleblowers at the Environment Agency, who said the company was wrongly downgrading pollution incidents and failing to conduct independent checks.

United Utilities denies misreporting pollution.

BBC Panorama: The Water Pollution Cover-Up is on BBC One at 8pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer from 6am the same day.

Water companies in England are set environmental targets by the regulator Ofwat and one of the key benchmarks is the number of pollution incidents. These are typically sewage discharges caused by blockages or equipment failure.

The companies have to pay fines if they exceed the target for the number of pollution incidents and are given financial rewards if they come in below target.

According to the official figures, United Utilities was the best performing company last year. It recorded just 126 pollution incidents, or 16 per 10,000km of sewer.

United Utilities was granted a £5.1m bonus by Ofwat as a reward. The extra cash will come from the company’s 7m customers in the North West next year.

But whistleblowers at the Environment Agency told BBC Panorama the company was wrongly downgrading pollution incidents and that the agency was failing to conduct independent checks.

In the last three years, there were 931 reported water company pollution incidents in the North West, and the Environment Agency only attended six.

During its investigation, BBC Panorama obtained two hundred reports about pollution incidents at United Utilities’ sewage works last year.

The programme found more than 60 cases where the company appeared to have wrongly downgraded the incidents to the lowest level, category 4, all of which were signed off by the Environment Agency.

Category 4 incidents aren’t counted in the official figures because they are supposed to have had no environmental impact. Only categories 1-3 are counted.

The Environment Agency guidance says category 4 should only be used where either pollution doesn’t get into the water course, or where it’s of such insignificance that it doesn’t have an impact, for example a “trickle into a large water course”.

The investigation suggests United Utilities should not have been awarded the £5m bonus for reducing pollution incidents last year.

One of the apparent incidents was in a world heritage site in the Lake District. In June 2022 a fault led to raw sewage being pumped into the middle of Windermere. The incident went on for more than three hours.

The leaked documents show it was initially thought to be a serious category 2 incident, but the Environment Agency didn’t attend and United Utilities downgraded it to category 4.

United Utilities initially denied that sewage had been pumped into the middle of the lake and said that tests conducted on the shoreline showed the pollution had no impact.

But company documents obtained by BBC Panorama showed the sewage had been discharged in the middle of the lake.

Mark Garth, the company’s director of wastewater treatment, told the programme: “I do accept that on this occasion sewage ended up in the lake as a result of that failure.”

Another incident identified by BBC Panorama was at the Wallasey pumping station on the River Mersey in Liverpool last November.

This time untreated sewage was apparently released into a Site of Special Scientific Interest after the pumps stopped working for more than two hours.

Once again, the leaked documents show it was initially thought to be a serious category 2 incident, but the Environment Agency didn’t attend and United Utilities downgraded it to category 4.

United Utilities said it was false to suggest it misreports pollution incidents and that the final categorisations are decided by the Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency declined to be interviewed for the programme, but said in a statement that some monitoring of water companies could be done remotely.

“We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously,” it said. “We respond to every incident and always attend those where there is a significant risk.”

The agency said regulations were being strengthened and that it would soon have new powers to deliver civil penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce.

It is currently conducting its largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by the water companies, including United Utilities.

BBC Panorama: The Water Pollution Cover-Up is on BBC One at 8pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer from 6am the same day.

A United Utilities spokesperson told Prolific North: “Panorama has made a series of allegations about United Utilities, which we strongly reject. Pollution incidents are investigated and action taken where necessary. The Environment Agency, as the regulator, determines both the initial and final categorisation of pollution incidents. We care passionately about the environment and the communities we serve and have just proposed an ambitious £13.7 billion investment plan – the biggest for over 100 years – to improve services for customers, communities and the environment here in the North West.”

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