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Thames Water fined another £4m for lack of maintenance

22 Nov 21 Thames Water says that it has stepped up its maintenance operations in response to a litany of sewer failures that have cost it more than £30m in fines over the last four years.

Thames Water fixes a leak
Thames Water fixes a leak

Thames Water Utilities was fined £4m last week for discharging an estimated half a million litres of raw sewage into the Seacourt and Hinksey streams in Oxford. The water company was also ordered to pay the prosecution costs in the sum of £90,713.

The discharge took place in July 2016. It lasted approximately 30 hours and flowed for at least 3.5km along the streams, through a pub garden and past community allotments. The Environment Agency reckons it was responsible for the death of up to 3,000 fish.

The court heard how the company had failed to carry out essential maintenance to prevent blockages in a sewer that it already knew was vulnerable to blockages. It had no system in place to identify blockages or pollution occurring and instead relied on observations by members of the public.

Judge Francis Sheridan said the failings in this case were “frankly embarrassing”.

The incident was reported to the Environment Agency by canoeists who found themselves paddling in sewage amongst dead fish. Environment Agency officers attended the scene and traced the pollution to its source.

Robert Davis, an attending Environment Agency senior officer, said: “It was quite horrific. Sewage pollution was bank to bank and there was a foul stench of raw sewage. When we traced the source we found a waterfall of raw sewage discharging via a pipe into the streams.”

The court also heard that during a major sewer renewal project in 2012, Thames Water opted for a solution which saved them millions of pounds and but critically relied on a six-monthly cleaning of the sewer to prevent blockages. But it never bothered with adequate maintenance. The criminal investigation revealed that Thames Water had failed to maintain this high risk section of sewer for at least 16 years.

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The Environment Agency had previously issued Thames Water with two formal warnings following earlier pollution from the same discharge point due to an earlier blockage in February and March 2012.

The court was told how the water company failed to disclose highly relevant documents, including a maintenance manual, until the 11th hour and only after members of the public had brought one of them to the attention of the Environment Agency.

This latest conviction brings the total amount of fines levied against Thames Water since 2017 to £32.4m for 11 cases of water pollution across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

Thames Water insisted that things had things changed at the company. Sustainability director Richard Aylard said: “We are deeply sorry for this incident in 2016 and the entirely unacceptable pollution that was caused to the Seacourt Stream, following a blockage of our sewer. We pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and accept the judgement of the court that we failed badly by not inspecting and cleaning this part of the sewer system.

“But things have changed. As part of the comprehensive turnaround programme launched by our new chief executive we are doing five times as much sewer cleaning as we were in 2016.”

Sarah Bentley took over as chief executive in September 2020, replacing Steve Robertson, who was sacked in May 2019 with a £2.8m pay-off.

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