The cryptosporidium incident which affected thousands of United Utilities customers was a dark episode for the water company, but there are lessons for both the company and the wider industry. Katey Pigden investigates.

More than two years have passed since the cryptosporidium crisis of August 2015, when United Utilities was forced to issue a boil water notice to 712,000 customers in Lancashire, served by its Franklaw water treatment works. For some, this remained in place for up to a month. The incident was the largest of its kind in Britain since 1989, before privatisation.

The event may have cost the company millions, but there are lessons which both it, and the wider industry, can learn. Incidents of this nature, although rare, highlight just how important it is for water companies to carry out regular and thorough risk assessments to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

United Utilities has since installed permanent ultra violet disinfection at Franklaw, which inactivates cryptosporidium rendering the organism harmless to humans and will prevent a repeat of this event at the site. Technology, training, asset management and better processes all have a part to play, but should companies find themselves having to respond to a major incident, communication is certainly key.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) published its long-awaited report on the incident on 25 October. The 85-page document details recommendations for procedures the company should review, including its emergency and contingency plans, and the way it issues advice to consumers. It also rules out a dead pheasant as the cause of the contamination, as was widely circulated in the national media.

It suggests water suppliers must have resilience built into supply systems, especially where the supply to a large population of consumers has no alternative supply arrangements.

The DWI says: “This may be by connectivity, redundancy of assets or robust protection systems to ensure that continuous supplies of wholesome water can be maintained.”

In the wake of the report’s publication, principal inspector Sue Pennison speaks exclusively to Utility Week, condemning the company whose response she insists was not good enough. There was “nothing new about this incident”, she says, and the company “should have known it was a potential risk and could have done better”.

“Water companies have to meet regulations from a water quality point of view and we’re there to hold their feet to make sure they do. We audit water companies and scrutinise processes and training and require the industry to tell us when things go wrong,” she adds.

“There are options including legal prosecution and the power of enforcement to ensure companies uphold standards. It’s not necessarily one option or the other and in the case of United Utilities we used both. We look at the what, when, where and how and consider the most appropriate course of action.”

The DWI insists the whole water industry can learn from the incident, and should “question whether what they are doing is enough”.

At the Consumer Council for Water’s (CCWater) recent public meeting in Newcastle the water watchdog brought together water companies based in its northern region along with representatives from the DWI to begin sharing learning points from the incident and the investigation.

Andy White, senior policy manager, CCWater, says: “Since the incident, United Utilities has enhanced its risk management processes, checked all 364 water storage tanks it has across the North West, and introduced more rigorous structural inspections for storage tanks.

“It has also installed ultraviolet (UV) treatment at the site as an additional line of defence against the risk of future incidents.”

And other companies have been putting themselves in United Utilities’ shoes to contemplate how they would handle such an occurrence.

“My conclusion was that the company supplied water that was unwholesome as a direct result of actions and decisions made by the company, and that if a consumer were aware of the presence of the parasite they would have rejected it for consumption.”

Marcus Rink, chief inspector of drinking water

A spokesperson for Severn Trent, explains: “Following the incident, we carried out a thorough exercise, looking at what we’d do in this situation, and how we’d respond to a similar issue.

“Going forward we’re looking at the report in detail, and we’ll also be attending all of the seminars that United Utilities are holding in November, to see what further lessons can be learnt.”

Meanwhile a spokesperson for Yorkshire Water, comments: “We have a water quality compliance rate of 99.962% and are committed to continuing to provide our customers with water that is clean and safe to drink.”

United Utilities claims it has learned many lessons from the catastrophe, and chief executive Steve Mogford said at Utility Week Congress last month that the company had emerged “stronger” as a result.

The cost was dear – around £25 million in compensation payments plus a £300,000 fine – and “as a consequence” the company has invested another £100 million across its estate “in applying the lessons more widely around systems and networks”.

United Utilities tells Utility Week the company has put technology and processes in place to “guard against a repeat” of this type of incident. “Public health is always our primary concern, and customers can be reassured that the North West’s drinking water is of an extremely high quality,” says a spokesperson. “Since October 2015 we had already started implementing many of the recommendations in the DWI’s report. We are now leading the UK water industry in terms of resilience to cryptosporidium.”

United Utilities plans to hold a series of seminars for the water industry throughout November to “ensure the sector learns from the incident”.

The DWI report suggests consumers received “unclear” information, which left them “confused” when advice was first published and when it was lifted. Despite acknowledging United Utilities made “every effort” to communicate with consumers, the DWI argues it could have communicated better.

Other recommendations include the use of a temporary treatment plant during a contamination outbreak, a review of cryptosporidium sampling equipment, and the implementation of a “programme of work” to ensure all its treated water-retaining tanks and reservoirs are properly maintained and secured.

The DWI will require United Utilities to give a formal response to its recommendations. The date for this is yet to be confirmed.

The day of the crypto calamity may have been a dark one for United Utilities, but such an incident serves as a vital lesson for the water industry and the sector has demonstrated it is sitting up and taking note to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Source: Drinking Water Inspectorate

Source: Drinking Water Inspectorate