Liberal Democrats and environmental campaigners have accused the government of “standing idly by” while England’s rivers are “poisoned”.
Thames Water has pumped at least 72 billion litres of sewage into the River Thames since 2020 – an amount roughly equal to 29,000 Olympic swimming pools.
The data was obtained by the Liberal Democrats through an environmental Freedom of Information request, as first reported by the BBC.
The water company discharged at least 14.3 billion litres of sewage into the Thames in 2022, and at least 32 billion in 2021 – making it the worst year on record for sewage discharges into the river.
But the total volume of sewage discharged is likely to be far higher than this. Thames Water only has sewage monitors to measure volume in some locations, which it used during the construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel.
Currently, water firms have no legal obligation to report the amount of sewage discharged. They are only required to report the number of hours it was released for. However, the Liberal Democrats have been calling for water companies to be more transparent with their data on sewage spills.
Party representatives described the data they obtained from Thames Water as a “horrifying revelation” that amounted to an “environmental crime”.
Mogden near Twickenham in south-west London was the site most impacted by sewage spills since 2020. As many as 17.1 billion litres of sewage was found to have been discharged on the site.
In addition, one billion litres of sewage was dumped there in only one day, 28 January 2021.
The second most impacted site was Crossness, in east London, where more than 15.8 billion litres of sewage has been discharged since 2020.
Munira Wilson, Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, said the government was “standing idly by” while rivers are “poisoned”.
She also called for Thames Water to be “ripped up” and replaced by a “public good company”, with a board populated by environmentalists, and said that the government should force water firms to install new monitors that measure the volume of sewage discharged.
“The era of water firms putting profit before the environment must come to an end,” she said. “These water firms are committing environmental crimes which are destroying our rivers and wildlife habitats, all whilst pocketing eye-watering sums of money.
“With almost every sewage monitor unable to measure the litres of sewage discharged, this figure is likely to enter the trillions. Water firms are fitting monitors which simply aren’t up to the job and hide the true horrors of their filthy sewage habits.”
Thames Water replied by saying its monitoring system “cannot measure volumes and was not designed to do so”. It stressed that “near real-time data” is published for each of the company’s 468 permitted discharge locations, which provides the number and duration of discharges.
The company added it was planning to “upgrade over 250 of our sewage treatment works and sewers” and stressed it has “started the £100m upgrade of Mogden sewage treatment works, which will increase capacity and reduce the number of storm discharges from the site”.
It is also “increasing sewage treatment capacity at a number of our other sewage works across the Thames Valley”.
The government said it believed “the volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is utterly unacceptable” and that “water companies must not profit from environmental damage”.
“We are scrapping the cap on civil penalties, have set stringent targets for water companies to reduce storm overflows and the Environment Agency has launched the largest criminal investigation ever into potential non-compliance at wastewater treatment works,” it added.
Earlier this year it was revealed that water companies have been consistently under-reporting the number of times they cause pollution incidents and overcharging customers as a result. The data was made public by legal firm Leigh Day, which is bringing a collective case against Severn Trent Water, Thames Water, United Utilities, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water.
In May, Water UK, which represents England’s nine water and sewage companies, promised to undertake a huge modernisation of England’s sewer system following concerns over repeated sewage spills.
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