Think we have cleaner seas? Why the UK still has a pollution problem

polluted sea CornwallThis post is by Andy Cummins, campaigns director at Surfers Against Sewage.

Britain is and always will be heavily influenced by its coast.  The furthest we can get from it on our beautiful island is a little over 70 miles.  And the coast has always been more than a bucket and spade destination.  It feeds us and powers our homes.  It supports healthy tourist economies, fisheries and various other maritime and offshore industries. The coast is ingrained in the very fabric of our society.

Unfortunately, the sea seems to be consistently mistaken for something with a limitless ability to receive the waste materials we don’t want to deal with on land.  Sewage, rubbish, industrial waste, even radioactive waste, have all been dumped in the sea.

UK  shook off its ‘dirty man of Europe’ image
At Surfers Against Sewage, we successfully campaigned for an end to the continuous discharging of untreated sewage that was commonplace in 1990s, using the EU Bathing Water Directive and the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive as drivers. 

Massive infrastructure projects were completed and several billions of pounds were invested around the country to update the Victorian sewerage system.  These projects helped the UK to shake off its ‘dirty man of Europe’ reputation.  However, as the late environmentalist Peter Douglas once said, “The coast is never saved, it’s always being saved”, and unfortunately a new problem quickly emerged.

Weakness in the system
The updated sewerage system has a weak point, in fact it has over 30,000 weak points around the UK, known as sewer overflows.  These were designed to discharge untreated human sewage and storm water into the environment during periods of heavy rain and in emergency conditions.

Where, previously, untreated sewage and storm water were discharged a mile out to sea via a long sea outfall, now they frequently discharge untreated sewage directly onto beaches and into rivers around the UK.

These sewer overflow pollution events happen so frequently that the European Commission recently successfully challenged the UK in the European Courts of Justice.  This judgment could have dramatic ramifications across the UK.

Surfers Against Sewage has recognised the scale of the problem and for over a decade we have been calling for a reduction in the frequency of sewer overflow discharges.  Initially, we were often ignored by water companies and regulators.  So, to ensure people were aware of the discharges and the associated health risks, we exposed when sewer overflows were discharging untreated human sewage onto popular beaches during the summer months across the national media.

As a short term solution, we’ve developed a real time warning system called the Safer Seas Service.  During 2014 the Safer Seas Service has issued over 220,000 free, real time pollution alerts, directly to the public, in response to 1,500 pollution events.

However, the information the service relies on is provided voluntarily by water companies, in many cases only during the bathing season.  We are calling for the provision of real time information on pollution incidents to become a mandatory requirement, and to be provided all year round where water users are present.

People are at risk outside the bathing season
We also think there should be an expanded designated bathing season.  Currently it is from 15 May to 30 September in England and Wales.  In Scotland and Northern Ireland it’s shorter still, from 1 June to 15 September. 

But a longer season would better represent the periods when people actually use the coast.  New wetsuit technology and coastal businesses are pushing the season beyond the traditional periods set down almost 40 years ago. 

Defra studies have suggested the risk of contracting gastroenteritis at UK beaches can be as high as one in seven, at beaches that currently meet the mandatory water quality standards of the EU Bathing Water Directive.  This risk was calculated for bathers that traditionally stayed in the water for a short period, rarely fully immersed.  Obviously, the longer a person stays in the water and the more times they immerse, the greater the risk.

To get a better understanding of the range and frequency of health impacts water users are experiencing, we are collaborating with a University of Exeter Medical School study, due to be published in 2015.

It’s frustrating, because frameworks are already in place to provide more appropriate protection for the coast.  But, all too often, the UK’s interpretation of regulations falls short.

Simple changes would make a big difference
Extending the bathing season, under the EU Bathing Water Directive, would limit the number of sewer overflow discharges that impact the coast, without the need for new legislation.

Revising the policy which directs where along the beach water quality samples are taken from would return more accumulated results on the pollutants that water users are facing.

And, as long as water companies are permitted to regularly discharge untreated human sewage into the environment, it should be a mandatory requirement for them to inform water users of the pollution event, for free and in real time.

These steps would be relatively easy to implement and would provide significant improvements for coastal users and communities.

In the near future, the UK should recognise the limitations of its aging sewerage network.  Sewer overflows need to be removed and storm water should not be channeled into the sewers.

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