Environment Agency’s plans to water down river pollution laws post-Brexit targeted by campaigners

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British rivers are under attack. In fact, they have been under attack for a number of years, and from multiple directions. As a result, all English rivers failed to meet quality tests for pollution under the EU’s water framework directive in results published this month. Entire ecosystems are disappearing, and nothing is being done about it.

The foot soldiers, responsible for 40% of the damage, are large-scale farmers, whose failure to invest in adequate slurry containment for the thousands of tonnes of manure their livestock produces has resulted in a large amount of it ending up in rivers, either from leaks, run off from fields after rainfall, or, in some cases, direct dumping.  

Then come the cavalry in the form of water companies, whose pumping of sewage into rivers accounts for 36% of the damage. In 2019, these privatised monopolies discharged sewage into English rivers a staggering 200,000 times, blatantly abusing the “exceptional circumstances” rule which permits discharges of untreated waste only after bouts of extreme weather.  

Watching over this assault are the commander generals, the Environment Agency, the very organisation that’s meant to protect our natural world. The Agency’s complete failure to enforce laws and hand out penalties has led to near-total regulatory collapse. As George Monbiot has pointed out: “Farms in the south-west of England have their slurry stores inspected, on average, once every 200 years. Why upgrade your store if there’s no chance of getting caught?”. Elsewhere, of 76,000 pollution and fly-tipping cases reported last year, just one resulted in a fixed penalty notice. In the words of its own officers, the Environment Agency’s monitoring processes have become “completely useless.”

Not content with turning a blind eye and failing to carry out its basic duties, the Agency is now busy opening yet another front against British waterways; it is plotting a wholesale post-Brexit legislative assault. 

In a speech to business leaders in August, Environment Agency chief Sir James Bevan proposed leaving the EU’s water framework directive, which sets strong targets to clean up pollution in rivers and enhance biodiversity.

Bevan wants to abolish the directive’s “one-out-all-out” rule, which means rivers have to pass four stringent tests before being declared in good health.

He wants to see rivers judged instead on just one criterion rather than having to pass all 4 tests. This reform, he has claimed, would deliver “even better outcomes.”

But Bevan’s proposal amounts to no more than a rigging of the system. Of course a reform of this kind would lead to “better outcomes” – if the bar is set lower, more British rivers will inevitably be rated “healthy”. This is a Trump-esque plan to manipulate the figures, to test less in order to get the results you want, and deceive people into believing everything is fine. At best, it is a shortcut to shirking responsibility. At worst, it is an attempt to redefine truth. It is incredibly worrying that the organisation tasked with helping us avoid complete environmental catastrophe is open to taking such a route.

There is a glimmer of hope, however, and as always it comes in the form of passionate, tireless activism. A campaign to #EndSewagePollution organised by a coalition of environmental organisations is rapidly gaining support. Their petition calling for an end to all sewage discharge into rivers and coastal waters has already gained over 30,000 signatures, and will be delivered to environment secretary George Eustice next month.

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No doubt, the campaign is gaining traction as a result of the numbers of people who took up wild swimming, paddleboarding and canoeing on Britain’s waterways during a summer in which Covid restrictions meant many of us relied on outdoor hobbies to maintain our fitness and wellbeing. It is heartening to see that this newfound appreciation for Britain’s aquatic environments is coming hand in hand with a commitment to fighting for their protection. Clearly, we can’t afford to leave it in the hands of the Environment Agency. 

You can find the full list of #EndSewagePollution’s demands here


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