Hundreds sign petition demanding say on permit controlling diluted sewage entering the sea at Whitburn
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National data released in late March showed 403,171 spills of diluted sewage from storm overflow outlets were recorded by water companies in England in 2020.
The spills occur during heavy rain to prevent the sewers becoming overloaded and backing up into homes. But the issue has long been a bugbear in Whitburn, one of the sites where discharge occurs.
The overflow in Whitburn is operated by Northumbrian Water under a permit issued by the Environment Agency and some changes to a sewer mean the water company has been asked to apply to “vary” its permit.
But campaigners in the area want the public to have a say on the permit, and a petition has been set up demanding the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water ‘advertise and consult the public and relevant organisations on the application’.
Steve Lavelle, who founded the petition, said ‘sewage pollution’ in Whitburn had been a problem for decades, and cited an inquiry and a European court case in that time, neither of which had, campaigners feel, led to the issue being fully addressed.
"Sewage pollution at Whitburn was a problem over 20 years ago,” he said.
“The public should be informed and allowed to have their say in the Environment Agency’s decision-making process.
“South Shields beach lost its Blue Flag in 2019. Marsden has no blue flag either.”
Mr Lavelle said efforts to improve the situation had been merely a “sticking plaster”.
He also questioned figures and assertions which were presented by the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water.
Both the agency and the water company, however, stressed no laws are being broken, and said the permit application relates to some minor changes.
An Environment Agency spokesman said: “Following discussions with Northumbrian Water, we became aware of a minor change to the sewer to prevent properties from flooding.
"As a consequence, we have requested that Northumbrian Water submits a variation application to our National Permitting and Support Service Centre to be assessed. We expect this to be a minor variation to the permit.”
A spokesperson for Northumbrian Water said: “Our system is operating as intended, which is to protect homes in the area from sewer flooding in Roker, Seaburn and Whitburn and protect the bathing waters.
“When a storm overflow discharges into the interceptor system, less than 1% of what is released is sewage, and this is strictly regulated by the Environment Agency and operates in compliance with their requirements. There is no breach of any environmental laws when this process takes place.
"We are not making any further changes, some very minor changes to how the flow of storm water enters the storm interceptor system were made to alleviate property flooding in the area."
The company said the same volumes of storm water enter the system now as they did previously.
“We understand the passion of the local residents, and we are passionate about our environment too, which is why we have invested tens of millions of pounds to improve the bathing waters and upgrading our sewer networks here,” it added.
The company said a programme of investment meant 33 of 34 bathing beaches in the North East reached good or excellent status in 2019, with beaches at Whitburn and Roker achieving ‘excellent’ status each year since the new guidelines were introduced in 2015.
Rachael Caldwell, Environment Manager for the Environment Agency in the North East, said: “We set strict conditions to regulate storm overflow discharges.
“The upgraded system at Whitburn became fully operational in 2018 and performance data currently indicates the system is operating within its permit, even following a particularly wet 2019.
“Since the more stringent revised Bathing Water Directive was introduced in 2015, both Roker and Seaburn bathing waters have been classed as Excellent.
“Together with Northumbrian Water and local authorities we have worked hard to improve bathing water quality across the North East, with 33 of our 34 bathing water rated Good or Excellent in 2019.
“We understand that people are passionate about the quality of their local bathing water and we are committed to ensuring Northumbrian Water meets the strict conditions of its permits.
"We do take action when this is not the case.”
:: To view the petition visit: https://bit.ly/3eQrEO6
Combined sewer overflows explained
The Environment Agency says England has a combined sewage system made up of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of sewers, built by the Victorians, in many urban centres.
This means that clean rainwater and waste water from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens are conveyed in the same pipe to a sewage treatment works.
During heavy rainfall the capacity of these pipes can be exceeded, which means possible inundation of sewage works and the potential to back up and flood peoples’ homes, roads and open spaces, unless it is allowed to spill elsewhere.
The Environment Agency says combined sewer overflows (CSOs) were developed as overflow valves to reduce the risk of sewage backing up during heavy rainfall.
Bosses at the agency says it works closely with water companies to ensure that they are closely monitoring and reporting back on their discharge activity.
The agency said it has identified more than 700 overflows to be investigated and 40 overflows to be improved within the period 2020-2025.
The Environment Agency adds on its website: “When water companies do damage the environment, whether it is through polluting our waters or breaching permit conditions, we take enforcement action against them including civil sanctions.
"We successfully brought forward four water company prosecutions in 2019, resulting in £1,297,000 in fines.”