Ofwat and Defra face legal action over sewage spills

Ofwat and the government’s environmental department (Defra) are facing legal action for sewage spills dating back to the 90s.

The regulator and government department have confirmed that they have received pre-action protocol (PAP) letters relating to their handling of sewage spills in the North East.

The letters, sent by The Environmental Law Foundation and law firm Landmark Chambers on behalf of their client Robert Latimer, sets out the grounds for legal challenge.

Latimer, a retired engineer, claims that the regulator and government failed to comply with its duties under regulation 4(4) of the Urban Waste Water Treatment (England and Wales) Regulations 1994 (UWWTD) in respect to sewage discharges by Northumbrian Water at Whitburn, near Sunderland.

In particular, the legal challenge claims that interventions taken to mitigate sewage discharges were not sufficient enough.

In 2017 an upgrade to the pipe was carried out, following a court order from the European Courts of Justice (ECJ). However, according to the letter, in 2021 alone there were 122 discharges amounting to 821,088 tonnes of sewage released from the outfall.

The legal challenge claims that Defra and Ofwat “mistakenly consider” that Whitburn Interceptor Tunnel is “now compliant” with the judgement of the ECJ following the 2017 upgrades to the Whitburn system.

An Ofwat spokesperson said: “We will provide a full response to a letter received from The Environmental Law Foundation on behalf of Mr Latimer in due course. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”

A Defra spokesperson said they the government is unable to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

Last month, both Ofwat and Defra set out plans for more stringent expectations around combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

This includes a monitoring commitment from the regulator and Defra’s plan to include coastal areas in discharge reduction targets.

Ofwat said wastewater companies will face penalties for inadequately monitoring CSOs as it proposes targets to lower the average number of spills from overflows.