British Sewage Discharges Attract Criticism Across the Channel

Sewage discharge, Newquay, Cornwall (Surfers Against Sewage)

Published Aug 25, 2022 7:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK's privatized wastewater management system is drawing scrutiny for a centuries-old feature: combined sewer and surface runoff handling. When it rains hard, aging sewage systems fill up, and they are designed to discharge untreated wastewater to prevent overflows. Some of that water ends up in the English Channel, and after a recent stretch of rainy weather, an unusually large number of discharges have attracted outsize attention for the potential risk to tourism and fisheries.   

The UK limits legal discharges to "extraordinary" circumstances, like heavy rainfall and flooding - but the BBC counts 400,000 instances of wastewater discharges in 2020 and 202. The latest round are severe enough on the Channel coastline that UK Environment Agency issued warnings for dozens of beaches.

Britain's neighbors across the Channel have read the news and are not pleased. French Member of European Parliament Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, who sits on the fisheries committee, joined French MEPs Pierre Karleskind and Nathalie Loiseau in calling for Britain to clean up its wastewater handling. "The Channel and the North Sea are not dumping grounds," Yon-Courtin said in a statement. 

Britain is no longer bound by EU regulatory bodies, but its post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels contained a pledge for it to retain the same levels of environmental protection going forward. 

"We cannot accept that the United Kingdom sits down on its environmental commitments made at the time of Brexit and calls into question the efforts that have been made by Europeans over the past twenty years," said Pierre Karleskind, Chairman of the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament.  

Former UK MEP Stanley Johnson, father of pro-Brexit leader Boris Johnson, warned that Britain's departure from the EU raised risks for water quality going forward, since the UK no longer faces enforcement pressure from Brussels. "I would say we have to blame the Government for not pressing this matter as hard as it should have done," he said in a radio show earlier this week.