Sewer pipe dumping water into sea

Sewage in the sea: A raw deal

3 minute read

Rachel Wyatt, Water Quality Policy and Advocacy Manager

18 Aug 2022

Sewage is polluting our ocean and our beaches. Coastal communities and marine protected areas deserve better.

5th September 2022: Update

On 28th August 2022, the final Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan for England was published by the UK Government, along with a press release from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) promising tougher targets to crack down on sewage spills. The plan hasn't been amended since the consultation: it lacks the ambition needed to protect estuaries and coastal waters, and the pace of delivery for all targets is far too slow. The concerns we raised in our response to the consultation and in our open letter to Defra still remain.

Our main concerns are:

The pace of changes being implemented is far too slow - overflows will be able to continue to release large items of plastic pollution for another 28 years.

Targets don't apply to overflows in estuaries and coastal waters, unless they are near to designated bathing waters - we've estimated that around 600 overflows are not included.

The definition of ‘high priority sites’ does not include all MPAs - Special Protected Areas (SPAs) and Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are excluded.

Targets should have included upstream solutions to stop harmful chemicals and microplastics at source - even if all of the proposed targets are met, approximately 20% of discharges (80,000 annually) will continue to dump untreated sewage.

The UK Government needs to do more. You can read the full story and our open letter to DEFRA below.

18th August 2022: Open letter to DEFRA

Sewage Pipe

Credit: David Dixon

Our coastal communities and marine protected areas deserve better. We’ve written an open letter to the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to voice our concerns.

Earlier this year, DEFRA consulted on the UK Government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which we hoped would finally address the cocktail of contaminants which is regularly discharged into our rivers, estuaries and seas from storm overflows in England.

We welcomed the UK Government’s ambition to prioritise reducing the harm from storm overflows and agreed that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable.

However, the plan fails to protect estuaries and coastal waters, by excluding around 600 storm overflows which will continue to dump uncontrolled amounts of sewage directly into English seas and beaches.

A cocktail of sewage

Although some beaches that have designated bathing waters will be protected from becoming a dumping ground, not all beaches will. This means that overflows not included in the UK Government’s plan could be pouring sewage onto other beaches people use for walking, swimming and surfing, releasing bacteria and viruses which can make people ill, as well as harmful chemicals, microplastics and other plastic items into the environment.

Sewage is also being discharged into shellfish waters and some Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). From looking at the amount of storm overflows spilling into MPAs in England, it’s clear that our so called ‘protected’ waters are not protected from harmful sewage pollution.

There are 2,540 storm overflows within 1km of an MPA in England. A shocking 440,508 hours of sewage spilling took place in 2021.

66,286

times untreated sewage was spilt from overflows in MPAs

Why the UK Government’s plan falls short for the ocean

The UK Government’s plan sets out three targets (and several sub-targets) aiming to ‘protect public health and the environment from storm overflow discharges’.

Target 3 only applies to storm overflows discharging inland or those near to designated bathing waters – ignoring estuaries and other coastal waters - and there was no mention of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) or Special Protected Areas (SPAs), which are vital parts of our network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Essex Estuaries

After several enquiries, emails, and requests, we finally received a response and meeting with DEFRA – but it’s still unclear just how many storm overflows are being excluded from the plan. In the meantime, we did our own calculations of how many overflows we thought this included and what impact they were having on MPAs – which we included in our full response to the consultation in May.

Dilution isn’t a solution

During our meeting, DEFRA said that they felt that storm overflows don’t impact estuaries and coastal waters due to the large dilution factor. Essentially, this means that because of the volume of water in these areas, the sewage would be diluted enough that it wouldn’t be a problem. We know that putting raw sewage into water, no matter the volume, will have a direct impact on our estuaries and seas – and those waters are already known to be failing to meet key water quality targets.

The plan must be urgently amended so that we can fully enjoy our coast and ensure that coastal habitats and marine life, which are vital in our fight against the climate emergency, are protected from sewage pollution.

We’re calling for all estuarine and coastal storm overflows to be included in Target 3, to ensure that they do not discharge over an average of 10 rainfall events per year. We're also calling for all MPAs to be included as ‘high priority sites’ in Target 1.

Our ocean deserves better – we mustn’t let it get left behind.