‘Chemical cocktail’: sewage, slurry and plastic coursing through English rivers, say MPs

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Sewage, animal waste and chemicals are choking the life from English rivers, a group of cross-party MPs have warned today.

In a scathing report, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) blamed England’s dirty water on “chronic underinvestment” and “multiple failures” in governance.

Pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics is contributing to a dangerous “chemical cocktail” coursing through the waterways, they said, with just 14% of rivers deemed to have good ecological health.

The MPs warned it was hard even to fully understand the state of England’s rivers due to underfunded and outdated monitoring, with cuts to the Environment Agency (EA) hindering it from detecting pollution.

The EA and water companies should clearly notify the public about sewage discharges so they don’t swim in areas with harmful bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry, they said.

Committee chair and Conservative MP Philip told Sky News: “Frankly, for the last 60 years, because our drainage and sewerage systems are all underground, out of sight, we’ve not invested in water treatment to cope with the increased investment in what’s been happening above ground.”

These above-ground developments include new housing, industrial facilities and intensive farming, he said.

However he acknowledged “significant improvement” around beaches and from industrial chemicals.

The committee wants at least one “widely use stretch” designated for swimming in each water company area by 2025.

‘Multiple pressures’

Algal blooms fuelled by animal waste and sewage are cutting off oxygen to plants and animals, which along with plastic and chemical pollution are “creating multiple pressures undermining the health and resilience of freshwater ecosystems,” the report warned.

Run-off from intensive livestock and poultry farming is putting “enormous pressure” on particular catchments, such as that flowing into the River Wye which runs through England’s “poultry capital” Herefordshire.

The committee is demanding a “step change” with more assertive regulation, water company investment, and potentially limiting company executives’ bonuses.

Surfers Against Sewage chief executive Hugo Tagholm said sewer overflows were “acting as ‘pollution superhighways’ spewing a damaging cocktail of pathogens, chemicals, antibiotics, and microplastics into sensitive habitats and the blue spaces that people are using more and more for health and wellbeing.

“We’d challenge if current water quality testing regime is truly protecting people or wildlife,” added Tagholm.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the government welcomed the report, which “highlights many areas that this government is now tackling”.

She said the new Environment Act “puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before”.

And the government has brought in legal obligations to make water companies reduce storm overflows, which discharge household waste into waterways when sewers are overwhelmed.

“We are delivering targeted action and practical support to farmers to reduce pollution from agriculture, doubling the budget for this approach and rolling it out across the whole of England,” she added.

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