Why is sewage being dumped into rivers? MPs reject proposal to ban practice

Anger was widespread after MPs rejected a measure that prevented water companies from pumping wastewater into seas and rivers.

Last week the House of Commons rejected an amendment to the government’s environmental law to prevent water companies from discharging sewage into rivers.

Only 22 Conservative MPs rebelled against their own party to vote for the change tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords.

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But Environment Secretary George Eustace urged MPs to oppose changes to the legislation, which they did properly – sparking a huge backlash on social media.

Why is wastewater dumped into rivers?

Under certain circumstances – for example after extreme weather conditions or when they are almost at full capacity – sewage treatment plants are allowed to discharge wastewater into streams and rivers.

Water companies receive discharge permits stating when they are allowed to discharge wastewater. Typically, wastewater discharged into rivers is treated in storage tanks before being discharged.

But last month the government gave water companies permission to discharge sewage that was not fully treated as chemical supplies became scarce due to the lack of truck drivers.

Also, not all sanitation is legal. In April, a BBC panorama Investigations revealed that untreated wastewater was illegally discharged into rivers, which violated the permit conditions.

As a result, wastewater treatment plants discharged untreated sewage containing human waste into rivers.

How much wastewater is discharged into rivers?

In 2020 untreated wastewater was discharged into English rivers more than 400,000 times.

A report from the Rivers Trust recently revealed that more than half of England’s rivers – 53% – are in poor condition. Neither is in good overall shape, the study found.

This is partly because water companies discharge wastewater into them without having been fully treated, but also because of other factors, including agricultural wastewater.

In 2020, according to the Rivers Trust, 1,602 river waters – 43% of all of them – were affected by wastewater discharges.

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