Sewage, slurry and plastic in rivers ‘put public health and nature at risk’

England’s rivers are filled with a ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic endangering public health and nature, an all-party parliamentary group has said.

In a new report released on Thursday, the Environmental Audit Committee said only 14% of England’s rivers meet good environmental status.

He added that it was difficult to get a full picture of the health of the rivers due to “outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring” and until the passage of the Environment Act the last year, there was a “lack of political will” to improve water quality.

The committee said it was difficult to get a full picture of the health of the rivers due to ‘outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring’ (AP)

Among the issues raised by the group are river quality monitoring that does not identify microplastics, persistent chemical pollutants or antimicrobial resistant pathogens that cross rivers.

Other concerns of the committee include the suffocation of plants, invertebrates and fish due to the accumulation of high levels of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from sewage and animal waste, as well as from the extent of sewage discharges, misreporting and large spills by water companies.

In his report, he added that fats, oils and greases, as well as cleaning and hygiene products containing plastic, also cause problems for drainage systems – while plastic hygiene products single-use clog pipes and sewers.

Its recommendations include urging regulatory action, investment by water companies, and collaboration across watersheds to restore rivers to ecological health.

The committee says Ofwat should review the powers it has to limit the payment of bonuses to water company executives until the breaches of permits cease and that the Environment Agency should consider setting up a online platform where scientists can upload their water quality data.

Portraits of MPs
Philip Dunne is the chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/AP)

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman Philip Dunne said: “Rivers are nature’s arteries and must be protected. Our investigation revealed multiple failures in water quality monitoring, governance and enforcement. For too long government, regulators and the water industry have let a Victorian sewage system buckle under mounting pressure.

“Today we are calling on these concerned bodies to come together and develop a system fit for the future. Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be strengthened, and even public awareness needs to be raised about what can and cannot be dumped down the drain or flushed down the toilet. So many emerging pollutants are being ignored by inadequate and insufficient monitoring, and lawsuits against polluters have dropped dramatically.

“To bring about real change and improve the condition of our rivers, a wide range of stakeholders need to come together, including government, regulators and water companies. The law on the environment was the first welcome sign of a political will to tackle this problem. I hope this marks the beginning of government action in regulation and pollution control to improve the condition of our rivers for all to enjoy.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the government welcomed the report and was going “further and faster than any other government to protect and improve the health of rivers and seas”.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “The EA has launched a major investigation into possible unauthorized discharges at thousands of sewage treatment plants, won fines of more than £137m since 2015 for pollution incidents and has placed new demands on water companies to dramatically increase their monitoring and reporting so everyone can see what is happening.We are also working with farmers to support a environmentally friendly agriculture that does not harm water quality.

“Everyone needs to understand the magnitude of the challenges and the investment needed to turn the situation around. We welcome the recommendations of the EAC and will respond to them in due course.

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