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tv   The River Pollution Scandal -...  BBC News  April 16, 2021 3:30am-4:01am BST

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now on bbc news, panorama. tonight on panorama, the scandal of our polluted rivers. get ready. it's coming. 0h. here we go. you can smell it. you can see the steam coming off of it. we capture evidence of untreated sewage being dumped. it's just started to flow. just as i'm stood here talking now, i've just heard it start. we see the damage sewage causes... that is disgusting! ugh! ..and we expose the water companies breaking the law. all of this is illegal. wow! and this is a month's
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worth of data. we're looking at them spilling untreated sewage for over half a month. the thames is a world—famous river and it's a central part of london life. but despite its importance, parts of the river are being used as an open sewer. this is barnes, in south—west london. now, the river's pretty low at the moment, so i'm standing on what you might think is the riverbed. except, it isn't. it's a mound of wet wipes. ugh! it's just... look at these.
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it's just wet wipes after wet wipes after wet wipes. it'sjust everywhere, you know? how can we live like this? debbie leach runs a river charity that's campaigning to clean up the thames. it's about the size of two tennis courts, and who knows what's down there in the river? this is just what we can see. you don't really realise what it is until you get down in this... yeah. ..and you start really prodding around it. yeah, yeah. i mean, every time the stick goes in, wet wipes come out. and when you're standing up there on the riverbank, you assume this is just mud and sand, but it's not. it's an artificial construct. yeah. we call this the great wet wipe reef. this is thoroughly depressing, isn't it? it's shocking, it really is. debbie, where are all
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these coming from? it's coming from the sewage system. these wet wipes are being flushed down the loos, getting into the system. wet wipes shouldn't be flushed down the loo and they shouldn't end up in the river. this is raw sewage. this is everyone�*s excrement going into the river thames. the river that people love and want to enjoy and picnic by. it's absolutely obscene. thames water says it's spending £4 billion on a new super sewer for london, and that it will deliver a huge reduction in discharges into the thames when it's completed in 202a. at the moment, the system relies on pipes like these. they're called storm overflows.
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sewers don'tjust carry sewage from our homes. rainwater pours into them too and sometimes, that combination can overwhelm the system. these pipes are designed to act as release valves in very wet weather, allowing water companies to dump untreated sewage directly into the river. the problem is that storm overflows are being used much too frequently. in 2020, the water companies used them 403,000 times in england alone, pumping out sewage for a staggering 3.1 million hours. the water industry says it's trying to use them less often. in periods of high ground water, intense rain and storms, there's a risk that the sewer network simply gets overloaded.
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and we absolutely can't have sewerflooding in people's homes and businesses, so overflows allow it to be released into the environment. but this isn't exceptional, is it? this is commonplace. there's more monitoring than ever and that's going to give us more data than we've ever had before, and companies are committed to reducing the use of overflows into the future. some of the storm overflows are located at sewage treatment works. you might think treatment works treat all the sewage that comes in but, in wet weather, they're also allowed to dump untreated sewage in the river. this is the river wharfe in yorkshire. mark barrow has been filming
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underwater here for years. the last ten years of my filming around the uk in the rivers, i am seeing more and more sewage entering the river. and i would say now 95% of my dives, i will encounter sewage, orwipes, orsanitary towels, some form of waste product that's been flushed down the toilet. i'm in the river and then, all of a sudden, you've got this wall of silt that literally hits you straight in the face. and you know immediately what it is because it's mixed in with sanitary waste, and then i have to get out. and it's not uncommon for me to get out of the water and literally be draped in these products. it's vile.
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one of the culprits is wetherby treatment works. yorkshire water says some sewage debris entered the river here, but faults were quickly repaired and clean—ups followed. it says wetherby is operating legally, but we don't think that's true. mark filmed the works dumping untreated sewage on a dry day last year. it's the 5th of november and we literally have had no rain whatsoever today, and we've got sewage spewing in fact, it hadn't rained for two days, so the dumping looks illegal. mark also filmed sewage being dumped on several other days last year.
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it literally started flowing about five minutes ago. we've had rainfall during the day, but nowhere near has this been exceptional rainfall. it's just been what i call normal rain and yet again, this is flowing. but we've discovered yorkshire water didn't report any of this. the company told the environment agency that wetherby didn't dump any untreated sewage last year. yorkshire water told us if it happened, it was a single data anomaly. it will investigate and submit correct data if there has been an unreported discharge. when we film with mark, the overflow starts dumping sewage again. it's just started to flow.
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just as i'm stood here talking now, i've just heard it start. we're in flow. it's starting. i mean, that shouldn't be flowing. we've got sunshine. the rain we had today was just a shower. you explain that to me, because i can't get my head round it. it's that smell. it's... you don't even have to see it to know what it is because it just hits the back of the nasal cavity. yorkshire water says it aims to help deliver good ecological status for the whole river by 2027. it is a complex issue which requires significant investment over a long period of time. the company says it's committed to reducing environmental harm and is working closely
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with the government. the government has set up a storm 0verflows task force and is promising new laws to help stop sewage pollution. this is something that, historically, has been going on for a very long time, but that's something that both the water companies and government now are tackling with a great deal of speed and urgency — and rightly so. as the environment minister, i'm making this a priority. so i take what you say. it is serious, it needs tackling, we're tackling it. six out of seven rivers in england are not in good ecological health. there are many causes of pollution. sewage is one of the worst. untreated sewage is normally screened and passed through storage tanks before it's dumped, but that doesn't
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remove the harmful pollutants. you can smell the approach. yeah, ican. there's a definite whiff of sewage in the air. i've come to a thames water plant at witney, in 0xfordshire. ashley smith wants to show me the storm overflow. and that's coming out of that square outfall there. you can see the... 0h! ..the water billowing. he says it's been dumping untreated sewage for the past 14 days. and this really shouldn't be spilling, except for exceptional circumstances? if there's an exceptional rainfall — heavy rainfall, or heavy snow that's melting — then we'd expect to see that coming out for a short period of time, but not for days, and not for weeks. wow! and it's definitely coming out today. we can see the sort of current and the swirls. yeah, sure. yeah, you can, yeah. that water that's coming out of there is that classic, signature sewage grey.
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thames water says the sewage is partially treated because it's screened and settled in storage tanks, but you can see what it does to the river. you can see the fungus here already, just in that margin there. you see that? what do you mean, fungus? see that gooey, grey, browny—grey gloopy stuff sticking to it? yeah. that is sewage fungus? yeah. it's actually a bacteria but it's called sewage fungus. it's absolutely battered with it. now, this might be the most disgusting thing i've done in a while, but i can't resist having a closer look at this, so i want to just see if... yeah. ..i can get a bit out. the whole thing is smothered in this gunk and this slime. yeah, yeah.
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i have to say, the smell gives you a clue of what's causing it. yeah. and there's so much of it. i mean, it isjust deep here. absolutely tonnes of it, yeah. look at all of that. that is disgusting! ugh! thames water says the sewage spill at witney was due to very wet weather, and it's planning a major increase to the treatment capacity of the sewage works. it's the environment agency's job to police water companies in england. it only prosecuted water companies for dumping sewage four times last year. the agency declined to be interviewed, but told us
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the regulations are clear and are enforced robustly. the environment agency has a duty to police this space. they have to do the checking, they have to do the monitoring and they do the enforcement. do you think that enforcement is up to scratch? if more needs to be done, they must do more. if sewage is going into our waters when it shouldn't be and there's evidence and data, some action has to be taken. that is — that is how we keep the environment clean and well looked after and sustainable. but some water companies are breaking the law. this storm overflow is on the river usk in wales. there's loads of paper, toilet roll, sanitary towels in the trees over there. up, and off you go again.
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look at that. absolutely foul. so, this... this is how we treat our protected rivers. local resident angela jones has recorded untreated sewage being dumped several times a day. i can't tell you what this is doing to the wildlife. the usk is a protected river. it's a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation. angela swims in it every day. for me, wild swimming is very much who i am. i wouldn't know anything else, and it feels the most natural place in the whole world to be. this is my office and my playground. nature has big arms to put around you and embrace you, but it also has a stony toe
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to remind you who's boss. storm overflows are supposed to have permits. but we have discovered welsh water doesn't have a permit for the one angela has been filming, so the dumping here is illegal. get ready, it's coming. 0h! here we go. ugh. you can smell it. you can see the steam coming off of it. look at it spewing, look at the colour it comes out. it's a horrible grey colour. i can see bits of — floating bits. i presume that's some
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sort of toilet paper. there's toilet paper and stuff in it. i can't quite believe this. this isjust... i don't know. i feel so distressed and upset that we've got a protected river that we really, really aren't protecting. this is really not good enough. it's not, you know? and you can hear it now, it's just starting to go, and i'm sure we're going to get another surge of sewerage coming out now. welsh water is a not—for—profit company and says it has invested more than £1 billion in its waste water network. it says it hopes to have a permit for the overflow by july. but right now, it is illegally dumping untreated sewage
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into a protected river. water companies do take these matters extremely seriously. that's why they are spending over £1 billion over five years to tackle this challenge. would you be happy to swim in a river where untreated sewage is being dumped? i think i would want to know that the river was safe from every aspect. including how much untreated sewage is there that might make you ill? i'm a keen swimmer. i absolutely would want to know that it was safe. everyone wants to see our rivers cleaner. they are not clean enough at the moment, and everybody is working hard towards that goal. we think we can show that some water companies have been regularly breaking the law at sewage treatment works. they can only legally dump sewage at these sites if two conditions are met.
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firstly, there has to be wet weather. and secondly, the treatment works has to be dealing with a lot more sewage than normal. there are about 9,000 sewage treatment works in the uk and most of them will have one of these. it's a permit from the regulator which specifies how much sewage must be treated before the treatment works can dump untreated sewage into a river. but we found sites that are spilling before they reach the specified level. they're dumping sewage they should be treating. so on the left—hand side, we have the flow going into the works in litres per second. and on the right, we've got some time—stamped data telling us when it is spilling
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into the river. retired professor peter hammond is a campaigner for clean rivers. he's analysed data from thames water and converted it into graphs. so this example right in front of us now, which treatment works is this? this is stanton harcourt. data from 2019 and 2020 shows stanton harcourt in 0xfordshire dumping untreated sewage into a tributary of the thames. it's illegal because the works isn't treating enough sewage to allow it to legally dump in the river. so the blue line's representing the amount that's being treated at the sewage treatment works. the red line indicates the minimum level at which they should be treating when they're spilling. the deal is if you're ever going to spill sewage into a river, that blue line has to meet the red line? yes. peter's added a black line on top to show when the works is spilling untreated sewage. so when we see these black
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lines here that's when the blue lines should be above the red line. but it isn't. it's always below. so all of this is illegal. wow. and this is a month's worth of data. we're looking at them spilling untreated sewage, in fact, dumping untreated sewage here, for over half a month. and it gets worse. really? it gets worse because if you then look at november and december, it's spilling every day throughout those months. and then we go into january 2020. spilling, you can see the black line, and then february and then march. so in other words, it spills for six months almost continuously. and you can imagine what effect that will have on quite a small river that this sewage treatment works discharges into. wow. thames water says that the issues at stanton harcourt will be addressed by an upgrade in 2025. you've done this for a number of works. how often are you seeing
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examples like this? unfortunately, quite regularly. this is not a one—off. and the evidence is that it's happening elsewhere in the country. this is one of the worst offenders — the giant mogden treatment works in london. it treats waste from more than 2 million people. remember, the site is only supposed to dump if the amount of sewage being treated exceeds the level stipulated in its permit. so the blue line has to hit the red line. but it doesn't come close. and yet, the black line shows the giant mogden works was regularly dumping untreated sewage anyway. this treatment works dumped untreated sewage on 43 days last year. we've looked at the data and believe it breached
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its permit on every single one of those days — that's billions of litres of sewage illegally dumped into the thames. thames water says that mogden and a small number of its sewage works have struggled following periods of heavy rainfall. the company says it's investing heavily and hasn't paid shareholders for three years. it says it has "firm commitments to provide the required additional capacity." "putting untreated sewage into rivers is unacceptable to us, even when legally permitted." we wanted to find out what was going on elsewhere. so we sent environmental information requests to the other ten water companies in england and wales. we've spent months going through the figures to work out exactly how sewage was being dumped in our rivers. our research makes one thing clear — the big water companies are regularly breaching
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their permits. our data suggests that seven of the ten companies has sites that have dumped sewage illegally. water companies in england and wales have been breaching their permits. the matter of permits and any breaches is a matter for the regulator. but be assured, water companies will take that extremely seriously. they are committed to the highest possible standards. why are they breaking the law? nobody wants to see discharges in the river. but this is potentially criminal, isn't it? water companies, they won't always get things right. where there is an issue, they deal with it. but that's not what we found.
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take welsh water. our data shows three of its treatment works have also dumped sewage illegally. one of them is aberbaiden. the plant is only allowed to discharge untreated sewage when the blue line hits the red. but the black line shows it was dumping illegally for days on end last december. it's happening on the same river where we filmed the storm overflow without a permit. once again, welsh water is dumping untreated sewage into the protected river usk. they shouldn't go black when the blue line is that low. i've come back to show river swimmer angela jones our evidence. so what we're seeing here, zoom into the 3rd and the 4th
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of november, for example. yeah? it is nowhere near, 100%, the red line. yeah, i can see. so from the 3rd to the 4th, they're spilling for 25 hours, into the river usk, untreated sewage. oh, my goodness. let me take you to the next month at that site, so this is the christmas just gone. the spilljust goes on and on. on and on and on and on. exactly. crikey. all the way through to the 30th. 25th, christmas day. were you swimming in the river on christmas day? oh, my goodness, of course i was. i mean, every day. what a christmas treat for the river, eh? i know so many people who swim up that area. it's just appalling, absolutely appalling. i can imagine the work that's behind the scenes that you've put into this to get this out there, and it's absolutely... to look at this on my screen and what you've come up with today is absolutely staggering. we can see by these graphs clearly that they are releasing sewage into the water
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when they are not allowed to. welsh water says its aberbaiden works is experiencing some bedding in issues following an upgrade. these should be sorted out by december. the company says it works with regulators to fix problems. it does "not accept it's operating illegally" at any of the sites. it says it continues to "invest significantly" and works hard to "comply with all environmental regulations". if we are finding they're breaching their permits, which they are, and illegally dumping sewage, what should happen? well, we have a due process to follow about how the systems have to operate to keep our water clean, and that's what should happen. are you going to get tough with the water companies now?
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isn't it the case they've got away with too much for too long? i have already got off the water companies. i called them all in to a roundtable, so i am not messing about with this, and nor is the government. but our evidence shows some rivers aren't being protected. just think of everything you've put down your sink, your toilet, your shower and everything else. this is going into the river untreated. does anyone think that's possibly a good idea? we need to change. the companies need to alter what they're doing and get their act completely cleaned up once and for all. the water companies say they are investing. but surely it's time they stopped dumping so much untreated sewage. time they stopped breaking the law.
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