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Stephensons Solicitors LLP on Water Pollution

While experts predicted a drought, last year became the second wettest year in England since records began. As if that wasn’t enough, Met Office reports predict even more intense rain in the years to come.


While experts predicted a drought, last year became the second wettest year in England since records began. As if that wasn’t enough, Met Office reports predict even more intense rain in the years to come.

Increased rainfall does a lot more than simply ruin UK holiday plans. It has a largely unseen, but serious environmental impact, in the form of water pollution. If an organisation fails to fulfil their environmental obligations, causing subsequent water pollution, they are at risk of prosecution under environmental legislation.

Bathing Sites Which Fail to Meet Environmental Standards

According to data from the Environment Agency (EA) a growing number of bathing sites in England failed to meet the environmental standards expected of them in 2012, due to an increase in pollution being washed from land surfaces and overstretched sewers into rivers and streams.

The EA also reports that the number of serious pollution incidents recorded in the water sector is also on the rise.

Legal Issues concerning Water Pollution

Greater flooding and higher levels of pollution in UK water make it vital for organisations to assess their risk of exposure to environmental legal issues. From large utility companies and sewerage treatment works to local authorities, small businesses and farmers, many organisations face risk of prosecution for their part in water pollution.

Under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010, the primary offences include causing or knowingly permitting water discharge activity without an environmental permit.

Water discharge activities include discharging poisonous, noxious or polluting substances or solid waste into fresh water or coastal water. They also include discharging trade or sewage effluent into fresh water or coastal water.

Due to the strict liability imposed with the majority of environmental offences, an organisation need only be found guilty of the act or omission which forms the offence. Regulators do not need to prove negligence or fault on the part of the defendant, which makes it easier for them to pursue an environmental prosecution.
Such a prosecution could have a serious impact on small companies or individual farmers. But in spite of this, many observers question the effectiveness of low level fines, when imposed on larger international organisations.

Example Cases

United Utilities were fined just £14,000, in December 2012, for discharging sewage into the River Lune; this was despite the fact that the company had underlying profits of around £594m.

Severn Trent was fined £20,000 for discharging sewage into a natural water source in October 2012. That year the company boasted profits of more than £275m.

According to campaigners these fines represent a tiny expenditure for companies with massive annual turnover, who spend more on marketing and salaries than they would on a fine of this nature.  The Sentencing Council has recently launched proposals for a new set of Sentencing Guidelines aimed at redressing this balance, which are likely to increase court penalties for environmental offences in the future.

The Cost Effectiveness of Water Pollution

Due to the relatively small size of the fines imposed for water pollution, it costs less to pay the fine than it would to force through the infrastructure upgrades which would be required to prevent water pollution. For this reason, large companies could account for potential fines within calculated risk projections, which would be damaging to the combined efforts of the government and the EA to reduce pollution.

Of course this is just one possible theory, and has not been proven as an actual business practice.

The Real Cost of Water Pollution

Not all those found guilty of water pollution escape lightly. The potential penalty for causing or knowingly permitting water pollution could receive a fine of £50,000 in the Magistrate’s Court or up to 12 months in prison. In the Crown Court, guilty parties could receive an unlimited fine, or up to five years behind bars.

In addition to disciplinary action against a company, individuals, including directors and management staff can be prosecuted. Businesses and managers who take these risks be aware of their responsibilities to the law, and also their obligations to the environment and the local community.

For advice on environmental law compliance, to receive advice on drafting environmental policies for a business, and for legal representation in the event of prosecution, contact Julie Goulbourne by telephone 01942 774 064 or email


 Water Pollution
 environmental legislation
 environmental law
 environmental legal issue
 Environmental solicitors

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