Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

Dirty Tricks at the green ministry

The true Conservative green logo: Replace the tree with a belching exhaust pipe.Pic:courtesy auto.howstuffworks.com

Six weeks ago I  had a particularly critical look at the antics used by David Cameron and Boris Johnson to delay tough new air pollution rules to avoid the Mayor having to pay out £300m in fines to the European Union. (see http://bit.ly/f2wB4j)

Now word via Whitehall has come to me  that a recent government initiative to curb ” red tape” to help business is about to be used as a further battering ram by the coalition to undermine  the so called commitment by both parties to a greener Britain.

My old Guardian colleague Allegra Stratton has already exposed the government’s move to incorporate all 278 environmental laws into the review (http://bit.ly/j6eVY6) . And it has  alarmed environmentalists.

Whitehall sources are telling me that the way civil servants in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been instructed to review the laws is extremely detrimental to green campaigners.

Effectively they have been told to concentrate on the BURDEN green legislation and regulations place on business and ignore the BENEFITS it brings to general health and well-being.

And this is from two ministries, business and energy and climate change , headed by two of  the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne.

Given the review cover issues like climate change, national parks, wild life protection, waste regulations, to name but a few areas, the only people  thrilled by this will be  libertarian think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute and the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.

If we pursue this line of argument we would never have bothered with energy conservation, banned lead in petrol ( they  all cost money to business in the short-term) and been quite happy to keep landfill going and see animals and plants become extinct. Luckily some of this stuff – like phasing out landfill , clean beaches and air pollution, depend on  directives from the EU, so even the most brown nosed civil servant in Defra is going to have difficulty telling his political bosses it is OK to forget the benefit to the environment.

And the government seem to have forgotten that not all business will be pleased if it is successful. There are 880,000 jobs in the environment industry dependent on existing regulation.

 As Adrian Wilkes, chairman of the Environmental Industries Commission, points out: “This is a potentially major threat to the UK’s environmental industry, which lives and dies by the regulatory framework. Government intervention is a vital ingredient in the creation of the environmental markets of the future.”

So once again, just like the row over privatising the rest of the forests defeated by the campaigning group 38 degrees, the coalition has put its foot in it. Unless that is, they never really believed in the green agenda in the first place.