The UK faces court action by the European Commission over claims that urban waste water collecting systems and treatment facilities in London and Whitburn in north east England do not comply with EU legislation.
In a statement issued Thursday the Commission said it is taking action “because it considers that the waste water collecting systems in London and Whitburn are being allowed to spill untreated waste waters from storm water overflows (known as ‘combined sewer overflows’ in the UK) too frequently and in excessive quantities.”
The Commission also says it is “concerned that treatment capacity for the waste waters collected in London is in need of improvement” and says the shortcomings represent an infringement of a 1991 EU directive on urban waste water treatment.
Under the directive Member States were to put in place adequate waste water collecting systems and treatment facilities for large towns and cities by the end of 2000 and ensure waste waters undergo appropriate treatment before they are released.
The directive provides that collecting systems and treatment plants may be allowed to spill waste water in certain situations such as emergency shutdowns or unusually heavy rainfall, but the Commission’s statement says spills linked to its court action “go beyond what the legislation provides for.”
London MEP Sarah Ludford said it was “scandalous that Thames pollution from sewage is continuing for so long that the Commission is obliged to take legal action. The Thames should not be used as an open sewer, with an unacceptable threat to our health and the environment.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “While we can’t comment on the specifics of this case, we remain confident that water quality in the UK is at a consistently high level. We’ve invested massively in improvements to overflows under the EU’s urban waste water directive. £2.5 billion has been spent on improvements in England and Wales since 1989 and a further £1 billion is planned for work to combined sewage outlets, as well as an additional £2.6 billion for the Thames Tunnels project.”
The issue of sewage in the Thames was raised with Boris Johnson by the Conservative London Assembly Member Richard Tracey at last month’s Mayor’s Question Time who expressed concern that it could pose a health risk for river users including rowers and swimmers.
Johnson said both the Health Protection Agency and the City of London Port Health Authority had advised him that “incidences of disease resulting from these overflows of sewage into the Thames are actually surprisingly low” although he conceded this could be “due to under reporting.”
Green Party Assembly Member Darren Johnson, responding to news of the EC’s legal action, said: ‘It is outrageous that even now sewage discharge from central London’s 57 combined sewer overflows can during heavy rainfall overflow 50-60 times a year into the River Thames and its tributaries.
“The building of the tideway tunnels is desperately needed and overdue to prevent further Thames pollution that results in low oxygen levels and fish death. It is no surpise that the UK Government in not solving this environmental menace is now being taken by the European Commission to the European Court of Justice for infringing the 1991 EU directive on urban waste water, which requires that waste water including sewage is treated before being discharged into rivers such as the Thames. The Mayor of London needs in the revision of his water strategy to clearly define how and when the tideway tunnels will be delivered. In the meantime there needs to be a focus on mitigating surface water run off which is predicated to increase from heavier downpours and result in more sewage discharge in the Thames.
“Measures could include water companies investing in rainwater collection schemes on new developments and supporting their customers to install such system in their homes to reduce run-off; compliance with the new planning legislation to control the number of concrete-covered gardens in London which resulted from the London Assembly Environment Committee report ‘Crazy Paving’ ; and ensure that Boris Johnson’s proposals for urban greening (planting street trees and green spaces) to absorb rainwater, and his plans to reduce surface flood are effective and delivered.’