The Environment Agency no longer has a target for visiting sewage treatment works, i has learned.

Data from the agency also showed that up until 2019, it was visiting an average of just six per cent of sewage works in England a year.

In emails shared with i, the Environment Agency (EA) confirmed that until 2019 it had a target to visit sewage treatment works once every five or eight years, depending on certain criteria.

From 2010 until 2019, data shows that it inspected an average of 403 of England’s approximately 7,000 treatment works each year. That is around 6 per cent, which suggests that a site would only be visited once every 17 years.

From 2019 onward, the target was ditched. The EA’s justification for this was that it had a wide range of other tools to ensure compliance, including “inspection, audit and data compliance”.

Since 2010, water companies have operated under a system known as Operator Self Monitoring (OSM). It means that the companies are responsible for checking that they are not in breach of their environmental permits and reporting any illegal sewage spills to the EA.

A sign warning of a 'Sewage Outfall' is pictured at the Thames Water Long Reach water treatment facility on the banks of the Thames estuary in Dartford, east of London, on March 3, 2023. - UK water company Thames Water, one of the UK's largest, has started releasing an interactive map of its waste water discharges into waterways after a beach pollution scandal last summer. (Photo by Ben Stansall / AFP) (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Sewage discharges are legal so long as certain conditions are met
Photographer: BEN STANSALL
Provider: AFP via Getty Images
Source: AFP

From 2008-9, the last full year before OSM, and 2020-21, the number of prosecutions of water companies by the EA fell from nearly 768 to just 17.

Several EA and water company insiders toldi that they had always known the system would be a bad idea and that it had changed the relationship between the EA and water companies into one that was far too friendly and accommodating.

One former water company employee, who for several years worked on patching together failing treatment works told i: “We went pretty much overnight, when OSM came into place, from the Environment Agency being our enemy, our police force, people who we were uncomfortable with if they’re on site, to best buddies.”

The attitude became, he said, one of: “We should invite the EA, we should bring them along to a works, we should show them what we’re doing.”

An insider still working at the EA agreed and toldi that there had been “a creeping ethos within the [EA] of being captured by industry… The concept of working in partnership with the water industry, and they will do intrinsically what’s right, working in partnership with the waste regulation industry and, you know, intrinsically they’ll do what’s right.”

The insider added: “That, in my view, only benefits the industry. They’ve got the best deal out of that.”

Another current EA employee told i: “Everybody, when operator self monitoring was brought in, everybody knew that it was a terrible idea. Why would you allow the biggest polluters in the country to essentially mark their own homework?”

Ofwat and the EA are investigating six water companies for not properly reporting illegal spills. The EA and Ofwat, in turn, are being investigated by the Office for Environmental Protection for not fulfilling their duty in regulating water companies.

Sewage overflows can be legal, so long as a treatment works is processing at its maximum capacity and is being overwhelmed by extreme levels of rainwater or snow melt. A lack of monitors means the EA often does not know if the criteria are being met.

Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust told i: “Regulating any industry by asking it to monitor its own performance was always going to be a big risk, and the only mitigation offered to me at the time it was introduced was that that self-monitoring would be robustly audited.

“It is clear that this didn’t happen. A robust regulatory framework is essential as a deterrent to polluters, to be fair to law-abiding companies and to reassure the public. It’s a completely false economy to cut regulators’ budgets, as it heaps costs onto businesses and individuals.”

Government funding for the EA’s monitoring of water companies has fallen from £157.3m in 2010 to £75.6m by 2020.

The information was given to the campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) in response to requests for data made under environmental transparency laws, who shared it with I.

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Despite having targets of inspecting works every five or eight years, data provided to Wasp shows that just five per cent of treatment works were being inspected each year.

From January 2020 to April 2022, the number of inspections dropped to an average of 280 a year. However, inspections during this time were heavily curtailed by pandemic restrictions.

“I thought was really bad that they had a target to inspect sewage works once every eight years and that they weren’t even doing that, but we dug deeper only to discover that they abandoned that pathetic target and just left it to basically luck,” said Ashley Smith, the founder of Wasp.

The Environment Agency and Water UK were approached for comment.

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