Council watchdog pledges to keep confronting water company on sea sewage

A council watchdog has warned Southern Water bosses it will ‘keep challenging’ the private company on the amount of sewage it releases into our local sea.  

Councillor Clare Moonan, who chairs the council’s Health, Overview & Scrutiny Committee, also said the company was failing to regulate itself, and an independent audit is needed to ensure the water quality is as good as it can be.  

The warnings came as Southern Water boss Nick Mills, who heads up the company’s Storm Overflow Task Force, said sea sewage caused by overflowing sewers is ‘unacceptable’.

'People want to know if water is clean' 

At a recent meeting of the committee Cllr Moonan said: “Public confidence is low. What we really need is an independent audit. What we really need is for people the know the water is clean.  

“What are the health effects of albeit diluted sewage being released into the water?” 

Mr Mills replied: “There is a risk to human health. You have Ecoli, intestinal enterococci and bacteria pathogens in sewage. So, there is a risk in certain concentrations, but those things exist in the natural environment.  

“The sea is not a sterile environment, so there’s always risk from other sources as well.”

Massive £90m Southern Water fine 'correct' 

Mr Mills also said the £90 million fine Southern Water received last July for 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges during 2010-2015 was ‘correct’.  

He told the committee: “It was shocking what happened. Let’s be honest, there’s no other word for it. It was completely unacceptable, and the fine was correct.” 

Mr Mills said the culture of the organisation had changed and his task force is working to reduce water sewage by 80 per cent within the next eight years.

Company dumped 16 to 21 billion litres of sewage  

At the time of Southern Water’s record £90m fine, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, sentencing the water company, said it had discharged between 16 billion and 21 billion litres of raw sewage into some of the most precious, delicate environments in the country.  

The company had 168 previous offences and cautions but had ignored these and not altered its behaviour. 

Cllr Moonan told the committee: “This problem is something we will want to keep challenging. We have got to try to work together and find some solutions.”

Heavy rain can cause sewage overflows 

The problem of sewage can happen during heavy rain when local sewer networks can struggle to cope with the amount of water entering pipes and storage tanks.  

When the tanks become full of rain, Southern Water uses pressure relief valves built into the network – known as storm overflows – to release excess water into rivers and the sea, which can also include large amounts of sewage. 

Mr Mills also gave a presentation outlining what the company sees as the problems the city and surrounding areas face as the local sewer network is old and needs replacing.

'Beachbouys' could help alert the public  

He said the company is piloting ‘Beachbouys’ that give beachgoers information about releases of stormwater or wastewater on an online, interactive map.  

But councillors said people using the sea should be told about sewage rather than have to find out themselves. 

The committee thanked Mr Mills for his presentation and for acknowledging the previous issues and future challenges the company faces.  

The committee will now invite the chief executive of Southern Water to a future committee meeting as he could not attend this meeting due to a prior commitment.