grassy bank in front of river

On 18 November 2021, the Environment Agency and Ofwat announced major investigations into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at sewage treatment works.

The investigations were launched after companies revealed to us that they may be in breach of their permit conditions. This issue was brought to light following the Environment Agency’s requirement of companies to improve how they monitor and manage flow-to-full treatment at wastewater treatment works through the installation of new monitors.

This update sets out what we’re investigating, what has happened since we announced the investigation and more about what flow-to-full treatment is.

What the EA is investigating

More than 2200 sewage treatment works spanning all water and sewerage companies in England will be scrutinised by EA experts.

This is a criminal investigation and as such must be conducted in accordance with criminal rules and procedures. The standard of proof in criminal proceedings is much higher than with a regulatory investigation such as Ofwat’s. Once the EA has completed an initial assessment, further investigations will be needed to confirm whether breaches of permit have occurred, the reason they have occurred and what the impact of the breaches might have been on the receiving waters, the wider environment and company profits.  These investigations are complex, involve vast amounts of material which needs to be analysed and turned into evidence and this will take time to complete. Any enforcement action will be taken in line with the EA’s Enforcement and Sanctions Policy depending on the nature and severity of any offence/s which come to light.

Ofwat’s investigation is considering whether any potential non-compliance with environmental permits suggests the company concerned might not be complying with other legal requirements a water company has, which Ofwat is responsible for enforcing. These include requirements water companies have about how, overall, they operate, manage, and report their performance, including of their wastewater treatment works.

While the investigation progresses, the EA, government and Ofwat are working closely together to ensure water and sewerage companies take immediate action where potential breaches of permit conditions are identified. It is the water and sewerage companies’ responsibility to bring their sites back within compliance as soon as possible and they will be held to this by the regulators.

What we have done since the investigation was announced

The announcement followed initial work we’d done to establish the grounds for an investigation. Since that time, EA experts have requested detailed data from over 2200 sewage treatment works to help determine the scale of any non-compliance. We are now beginning the process of scrutinising around 140 million pieces of data relating to flow, provided by companies at the end of January 2022. We expect to conclude this phase in spring 2022. As we move into the next phase we will examine further data sources including those provided by third parties, to give us the best intelligence.

This will help identify the sites for further investigation so that we can confirm whether breaches have occurred, the reason they have occurred and what the impact of the breach is on the receiving waters.

This is the first in several phases of the investigation. The potential scale of it sets it apart from others previously conducted by the EA and adds several layers of complexity.

The next phase may include site inspections, audits and interviews, and is expected to continue throughout 2022 and into 2023. The length of time it takes will be determined by the number of sites found to be in breach of legal requirements and the number of offences involved.