SOUTH West Water has been fined more than £2 million for a series of environmental offences across Devon and Cornwall spanning a period of four years.  

It is the largest ever fine imposed for environmental offences in the region.  

Delivering her sentence, District Judge Matson said: “Incidents of pollution will no longer be tolerated by these courts” and fined the water company £2,150,000 today, April 26.

The EA has shown that there were numerous common deficiencies in the implementation of SWW’s management systems which have contributed to each of these offences. 

Fish killed because of pollution discharged into the River Axe at Kilmington.
Fish killed because of pollution discharged into the River Axe at Kilmington. (EA)

The company had pleaded guilty at an earlier court hearing and District Judge Matson, sitting at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court sentenced the company on 13 charges – six for illegal water discharge activities and for seven offences of contravening environmental permit conditions.

The offences took place between July 2016 and August 2020 at Lostwithiel, Kilmington, Crediton and Torpoint sewage treatment works and the Watergate Bay sewage pumping station.   

The water company was ordered to pay £280,000 costs and £170 victim surcharge.

Inaccurate and inadequate operational procedures led to harmful chemicals escaping from SWW sites on more than one occasion which resulted in significant environmental damage including sites at Kilmington on the River Axe and in Crediton on the River Creedy.

Following the spill at Kilmington, thousands of fish died in the River Axe including some protected species.

Failure by SWW to operate its assets and processes in an effective manner was also demonstrated at Lostwithiel in July 2016, where raw sewage was pumped into the River Fowey for more than 12 hours despite control room alarms indicating there was an issue with the works.  

Not responding adequately to alarms the same year resulted in an illegal discharge from the Watergate Bay sewage pumping station in August 2016. The discharge lasted for more than 35 hours and a sample taken from a stream at the beach showed E. coli levels to be 2,000 times higher than the level that would be classified as poor.

On two occasions effluent from the Torpoint sewage treatment works was pumped into the St John’s Lake Site of Special Scientific Interest – this also lies within the Plymouth Sounds and Estuaries Special Area of Conservation. The site is designated due to its variety of bird life and invertebrates.  

Today’s sentence “shows the shareholders and management of South West Water the importance of compliance”, said the judge.

Alan Lovell, Chair of the Environment Agency, said: “We welcome this sentence. Serious pollution is a serious crime – and we have been clear that the polluter must pay.

“The Environment Agency will pursue any water company that fails to uphold the law or protect nature and will continue to press for the strongest possible penalties.” 

Clarissa Newell, Environment Agency environment manager for Devon and Cornwall said: “Failure to apply basic environment management principles has caused pollution incidents at some of the most scenic locations in Devon and Cornwall including bathing waters and designated Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). 

“Having alarms to alert you that sewage is spilling is no good if no action is taken. Enforcement is intended to prevent these things from happening again and ensure South West Water improve and meet the expectations placed on it. 

“Like all water companies, South West Water has a responsibility to operate in accordance with permit conditions and to prevent pollution. Polluters must pay and the Environment Agency will continue to do everything in its power to ensure that they do.”  

An Ofwat spokesperson said: "The actions of South West Water have rightly been condemned and we welcome the penalty imposed by the court.

“This stands as another example of regulators using all available means to hold water companies to account. We will continue to work with our colleagues in the Environment Agency and across Government, to ensure companies meet the standards expected."

Susan Davy, CEO Pennon Group, said: “Any pollution incident is one too many. These seven isolated incidents that took place between 2016 and 2020 were unacceptable and it’s right that we have been held to account by the EA.

" I also want to be clear that this didn’t happen because we don’t care, we do.

"Everyone who works for South West Water is extremely passionate about our environment and we need to do more to prove this to our customers and visitors to our region.

"We have a plan, it is working and we won’t stop until everyone can feel proud about the performance of their water company in the South West.”