Thames Water Utilities Ltd, known as Thames Water, is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services company, and, inter alia, supplies over two and a half billion litres of drinking water every day. 

As the result of a catastrophic escape of sewage from sewers below London on 8 February 2016, which lead to pollution of a park, woodland and the Hogsmill River in New Malden, Aylesbury Crown Court recently imposed a substantial fine and costs on the company after it pleaded guilty to offences under The Environmental Protection Act 1990 and The Environmental Permitting (England & Wales) Regulations 2016.

Sukhdip Randhawa of Kangs Solicitors outlines the circumstances.

If you have been made subject to an investigation by the Environment Agency or any other enforcement agency, it is essential that immediate expert legal guidance and representation is sought. 

The team at Kangs Solicitors regularly assist clients facing allegations of environmental law breaches and offers vast experience supporting clients subject to an investigation

For an initial no obligation discussion, please call our team at any of our offices:

The Circumstances | Kangs Environment Solicitors

The Court heard that:

  • under pressure of extreme weather five years ago, which had been forecast, pumps failed which resulted in raw effluent backing up along the system and eventually bursting out of a manhole thereafter covering an area the size of three football pitches,
  • the Environment Agency’s investigation found that fifty warning alarms were set off over five hours on 8 February 2016, triggered by a power failure, but every one was left unchecked, which allowed the sewage to build up and flow above ground, 
  • it was several hours after the incident began that a Thames Water engineer arrived at the sewage treatment works and discovered the problems which had arisen,
  • it took Thames Water fifteen hours to report the incident to the Environment Agency and a further twelve hours, until the morning of 9 February before the company had a sizeable presence to start tackling the issues,
  • it took nearly a month for the sludge to be cleared up, although toilet paper, which had been swept along the river, was still visible months later.

The Applicable Law | Kangs Environmental Team

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 provides that a person:  

  • shall not deposit controlled waste (or extractive waste) or knowingly cause or knowingly permit controlled waste (or extractive waste) to be deposited in or on any land unless (an environmental permit) authorising the deposit is in force and the deposit is in accordance with the licence.
  • who contravenes the specified Regulations commits an offence.

Potential Defences | Kangs Environment Offences Defence Solicitors

A person charged with an offence may have a defence if it can be proven: 

  • that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence; or
  • that the act alleged to constitute the contravention was carried out in an emergency in order to avoid danger to human health in a case where:
  1.  he took all steps as were reasonably practicable in the circumstances for minimizing pollution of the environment and harm to human health; and
  2. particulars of the act were furnished to the Waste Regulation Authority as soon as reasonably practicable.                     

The Penalties Imposed | Kangs Health and Safety Team

When considering the level of penalty to impose, the court also took into consideration breach of a permit regarding that incident, discharging into the Hogsmill River in January and October 2018 and an incident in September 2019, when sewage sludge was released from Hogsmill sewage treatment works in error.

Accordingly, Thames Water was fined £4,000,000 and ordered to pay costs of £84,669.

Official Comment | Kangs Criminal Defence Solicitors

Gary Waddup, a land and water officer for the Environment Agency in south London, said:

‘Like similar incidents in the past few years for which they have been prosecuted, better management overall and on the night by Thames Water could have prevented this catastrophic incident.

It wasn’t the first time sewage had escaped from manholes due to problems at the treatment works in Surbiton. Pollution as a result from problems at the site goes back to 2001.

The Environment Agency’s enforcement action over several years and the pressure it has put on water companies has led to £30 billion of investment by the industry in water quality. This incident shows Thames Water and the industry have a lot more to do to protect the environment.’

How Can We Assist? | Kangs Environment Agency Solicitors

If you as an individual or as a company are faced with the possibility of investigation or prosecution in respect of an environmental issue of any nature, it is essential that you have immediate expert assistance.

Please do not hesitate to contact our team through any of the following who will be pleased to hear from you.

John Veale
020 7936 6396 0121 449 9888

Suki Randhawa
0121 449 9888 | 020 7936 6396

Tim Thompson
0161 817 5020 | 0121 449 9888