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Water company hit with major fine after failing to stop raw sewage from pouring into local stream: 'This cannot be categorized as a minor incident'

Faulty equipment caused waste to begin flowing into Shawford Lake Stream.

Faulty equipment caused waste to begin flowing into Shawford Lake Stream.

Photo Credit: iStock

A water company that allowed raw sewage to contaminate a stream for hours on end has been fined after thousands of fish were killed and activities disrupted. 

What happened?

Faulty equipment caused waste to begin flowing into Shawford Lake Stream in Hampshire, England, on the morning of July 21, 2019. But even though the alarm system went off as intended, Southern Water didn't take action until later in the afternoon, as detailed by the Guardian.

Because of the delay, the sewage continued to contaminate the stream, located on the edge of England's famous South Down, for an estimated five to 20 hours. 

"The local ecology was significantly affected and over 2,000 fish were killed. This cannot be categorized as a minor incident," district judge Nicholas Wattam said of the failure to quickly address the situation. 

YMCA Fairthorne Manor, which frequently hosts school trips, also had to cease operations for 10 days, resulting in more than 1,000 sessions being canceled. 

In February, Southern Water pleaded guilty to one count of breaking Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) regulations and was fined £330,000 (around $421,000).

Why is this important?

The effects of environmental pollution linger long after the initial contamination event, with human health and wildlife both being impacted, and some recovery efforts can take years.

According to the Guardian, officials from the UK Environment Agency said that ammonia levels in Shawford Lake Stream became 25 times higher than legally safe levels. 

Worryingly, this wasn't the first time Southern Water had been fined.

In a 2021 press release, the Environment Agency announced that the company had been ordered to pay £90 million ($115 million) in fines after pleading guilty to nearly 7,000 illegal sewage discharges in Kent, Hampshire, and Sussex. 

"The offenses were found to be caused by deliberate failings, causing major harm (Category 1) to protected areas, conservation sites and oyster beds," the agency wrote.  

What is Southern Water doing to prevent future leaks?

General counsel and company secretary Richard Manning issued a statement on Southern Water's official website detailing how the water company intends to rectify its systemic issues. 

According to Manning, a new leadership team is now in place, and Southern Water is investing £3 billion ($3.8 billion) to "improve performance." 

"Learning from this incident also led to a comprehensive review of our more than 3,000 unmanned pumping stations to ensure those at highest risk were fit for purpose, leading to a rolling programme of improvements to equipment and monitoring technology," he stated.

In 2021, when the company was fined, the Environment Agency wrote that "Southern Water deliberately presented a misleading picture of compliance" that obstructed "proper regulation of the company." The latest actions, however, appear to be pointing to a promising development.

Protecting the environment is a multilayered process, but supporting pro-environment candidates and understanding how to spot greenwashing are ways to help hold companies accountable.

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