Severn Trent has been fined £500,000 for discharging thousands of gallons of raw sewage into a park in Birmingham.
The company told a hearing at Birmingham Crown Court it was “truly sorry” for the incident in November 2013 at Sutton Park, Sutton Coldfield, a designated site of special scientific interest (SSSI). Its impact was described as among the worst damage to a SSSI that Natural England has witnessed.
A sewer blockage had caused the sewage to spill from a manhole cover. The source was not found until the next morning, by which time it had spread across an area of 1.15 hectares, as well as travelling 700 metres along the Longmoor Brook and into the Longmoor Pool.
The remedy operation by Severn Trent, helped by several local and environmental groups, involved scraping up soil and plants from along the affected area to avoid contamination. It led to the destruction of 0.65 hectares of rare and sensitive wildlife.
Sentencing on 22 March, Judge Drew QC agreed with representatives from Natural England, who had been concerned with the efficiency of the clear-up effort.
However, he concluded that Severn Trent had taken the necessary action to fix the effects of the spillage and had displayed a long-term commitment to restoring the area.
A Severn Trent spokesperson said: “We’re truly sorry for the impact the blockage in our sewer pipes had on Sutton Park. We worked closely with the Environment Agency, Natural England, English Heritage, and Birmingham City Council to clean up the affected area. Monitoring of the area, carried out over a number of years by specialist environmental consultants, showed there was no long-term impact to the site, to wildlife or to the local pools and streams.
“We’ve also been carrying out a review of our assets in and around the park to see if we can reduce the risk of pollution in the future. We’ve also installed special monitors on sewers throughout the park to give us an early warning of any potential blockages.
“Since this event we’ve worked hard to improve our environmental performance across the whole of our region and have significantly reduced the number of pollution incidents we’ve had. Moving forward, we’re investing millions of pounds to maintain our sewer pipes to prevent sewer flooding and blockages like this from happening in the first place.”
The court made note of Severn Trent’s overall positive environmental record and values, as well as the fact it took full responsibility for the incident and had not been commercially motivated.
The company has previously been recognised as industry-leading by the Environment Agency’s Environmental Performance Assessment in 2017, which noted Severn Trent’s environmental compliance had improved since the incident.
Emma Johnson, Natural England’s area manager for the West Midlands, said: “There’s a lot of love for Sutton Park. It is used and enjoyed by many, it’s a prime site for wildlife and is part of the history of the West Midlands. The sewage spill incident caused by Severn Trent Water and the impact it had is amongst the worst damage to a SSSI that Natural England have witnessed.
“It’s particularly disappointing as water companies should have technology and processes in place to prevent this type of spill from happening. Natural England have supported and worked closely with the Environment Agency and I hope that the outcome of this prosecution helps highlight the importance of protected sites and the need to look out for them.
“Looking forward, I am hopeful that ourselves and the Environment Agency can work with Severn Trent Water to rectify the issues and restore the site to a healthy state and prevent future spills.”
The water company was also ordered to pay £50,693.97 in legal fees plus a £120 victim surcharge.