Britain is threatening human health, marine life and fishing by releasing raw sewage into the Channel and the North Sea, three French Euro MPs have said.
They have asked the European Commission to seek “political and legal” measures to stop the pollution, accusing the UK of abandoning international environmental regulations.
The official complaint comes after dozens of beaches in England and Wales were pinpointed as posing a pollution risk for bathers.
The three MEPs have written to the commission in Brussels saying the UK’s decision to lower its water quality standards is “unacceptable” and action must be taken to stop it polluting the Channel and North Sea.
“We fear for the negative consequences on the quality of sea water that we share with that country and as a result on the marine biodiversity as well as fishing and shellfish farms,” they wrote to the environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius.
The MEPs are Pierre Karleskind, the chair of the European parliament’s fishing committee, Nathalie Loiseau, a former French Europe minister, and Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, who is also a regional councillor in Normandy, where the coastline risks being the worst affected by UK sewage. They are members of the centrist Renew group in the European parliament.
“Since Brexit, the United Kingdom has exonerated itself from [EU] environmental rules,” they wrote in a letter headed: Britain’s pollution of the waters in the Channel and North Sea.
It pointed out that although no longer bound by EU rules since January last year, the UK had signed a commerce and cooperation agreement as part of the withdrawal treaty and was still a signatory of UN law of the sea, a charter on the protection of shared waters.
“Despite this, the UK has chosen to lower its water quality standards. This is unacceptable and calls into question the efforts made by EU member states over the last 20 years. The UK is committed to preserving the seas that surround it and that we share,” they wrote.
“The Channel and the North Sea are not dumping grounds,” Yon-Courtin tweeted.
Britain has a combined sewerage system that carries rainwater and dirty wastewater from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens in the same pipes to the treatment works. During heavy rainfall, especially when the ground is too dry to absorb the excess water, the works are inundated; to avoid raw sewage flooding homes, roads and other open spaces, it is temporarily discharged into the sea and rivers. While this is supposed to be exceptional, the charity Surfers Against Sewage noted that pollution warnings were in place for dozens of beaches in England and Wales after heavy rains last week.
Last year, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for dumping billions of litres of untreated sewage into the sea in West Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. In January, Le Monde reported on concerns from bathers and oyster fishers about Southern Water dumping raw sewage into the sea at Whitstable.
An opinion piece from Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, Jonson Cox, the chair of the water regulator, Ofwat, and Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the Environment Agency, published on the UK government website in June, flagged that data shows the use of storm overflows “is now not exceptional”.
“In some cases, up to 200 discharges a year are occurring,” they wrote. “This is obviously unacceptable on public health grounds.”
The authors added: “This is a serious public health issue for government and regulators and it is clear that the water companies are not doing enough. The public health dangers are in addition to the ecological and environmental impact which forms the basis for much regulation.”
Water UK, which represents the UK water industry, said firms agree there is “an urgent need” for action and are investing more than £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national environmental programme between 2020 and 2025.
The government has said it will announce a plan next month to reduce storm overflows. This was made a legal requirement by the Environment Act 2021.
Water minister Steve Double said: “Our world-leading Environment Act has made our laws on water quality even stronger than when we were in the EU. It sets tough new legal targets, duties and accountability mechanisms to leave our environment in a better state for future generations.
“Unhelpful and ill-informed comments like this shouldn’t distract from the work we are doing to further protect our rivers and sea. We have already made it law for water companies to reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges, and our upcoming Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history.”
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