Campaigners accused the Environment Agency of “actively weakening” environmental protections after reports claimed that its inspectors were relying on water companies’ assessments of sewage pollution incidents instead of visiting sites themselves.
Surfers Against Sewage said polluting water companies were effectively being allowed to “mark their own homework”.
Previously, officials in the Environment Agency (EA) would usually attend and investigate category 1 or 2 incidents – the most serious incidents of water pollution – in person after a member of the public reported incidents at swimming spots.
In August, the regulator issued supplementary guidance to its officers on classifying the seriousness of bathing water pollution incidents, weakening inspections rules, The Times reported.
According to the paper, officials have now been told that their usual presumption “that an impact has occurred” can be overturned if “appropriate information to demonstrate no impact has been provided by the water company.”
A source at the agency, quoted in The Times, said: “It used to be: incident reported, someone from the EA on site, then contact the water company to see what they have to say about it. You’re now missing that ‘someone on site’.”
Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy at Surfers Against Sewage, told i that this amounted to letting water companies “mark their own homework”, which she condemned as “frankly unbelievable”.
“In what world have these companies earnt the public’s trust when it comes to sewage pollution?” she said. “This is yet another example of the impact of the decimation of the now toothless Environment Agency and the kowtowing of the government to industry.”
The government was “actively weakening” environmental protections rather than strengthening them,” she added. “The public are sick of sewage and won’t allow the Government to sweep this issue under the carpet.”
Pollution warnings hit scores of beaches this summer, after sewage was pumped into swimming spots following heavy rains. After one downpour in August, pollution warnings were put in place at 40 beaches.
The Environment Agency maintains the guidance does not change how it classifies and assesses pollution incident reports.
News of the guidance comes at the end of a year that has not only been marked by sewage dumps at beaches and rivers, but also when the outgoing chair of the EA, Emma Howard Boyd, called for jail time from the worst offending water companies and higher fines for “serious and deliberate” pollution incidents.
She said in June: “The water companies will only stop behaving like this if they are forced to. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary.”
Regarding the guidance, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: “There has been no change to how we classify and assess pollution incident reports. We are promoting a precautionary approach which assumes a water quality impact has occurred unless proven otherwise, providing bathers with the best information on any risks associated with using affected bathing waters.”