Water firm accused of ‘pumping sewage into Lake Windermere’

Lake Windermere, the jewel in the Lake District, which is one of Britain's most famous Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Lake Windermere, the jewel in the Lake District, which is one of Britain's most famous Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - Getty Images/Edwin Remsberg

Sewage pollution in Lake Windermere was covered up by a water company, documents suggest.

United Utilities appears to have misreported its sewage pollution, documents leaked to the BBC’s Panorama show, with more than 60 cases wrongly downgraded to the lowest level and therefore not counted in official figures.

Earlier this year, the company received a £5 million bonus for meeting its environmental targets.

The dozens of wrongly downgraded cases included a discharge in June 2022 into Lake Windermere, a world heritage site in the Lake District, in Cumbria, when sewage was pumped into the lake for more than three hours.

It was initially thought to be a category 2 incident, but the Environment Agency did not attend and it was downgraded to category 4 by United Utilities.

The company initially denied it had dumped sewage into the middle of the lake until the BBC obtained the documents suggesting it had.

United Utilities was rated as a top performer in the regulator Ofwat’s performance review this year, recording just 126 pollution incidents, or 16 per 10,000 kilometres (6,213 miles) of sewer.

Ofwat records incidents rated category 1-3 but not those in category 4, which indicate there was no environmental harm.

Rewarded for good performance

As a reward for its good performance, the company will be allowed to raise £5.1 million by increasing bills for its seven million customers in north-west England next year.

The BBC spoke to insiders at the company and the Environment Agency who said United Utilities has been misreporting sewage pollution that should have been in the more serious categories 1-3 but were classified as category 4.

One worker for United Utilities said the company only acts on the environment when it is forced to and that its priorities are protecting its reputation and making money.

United Utilities denies any wrongdoing.

Pollution incident reports are signed off by the Environment Agency, whose officers have visited just six of the 931 reported pollution incidents in the past three years, the BBC said.

Labour is now calling on the Government to give water regulators the power to ban chief executives’ bonuses if their companies are polluting rivers, lakes and seas, in a motion tabled to the House of Commons.

Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said: “This Conservative Government has wilfully turned a blind eye to negligence at the heart of the water industry.

“The result is stinking, toxic sewage destroying our countryside, and consumers facing higher bills while water bosses pocket millions in bonuses.

“With Labour, the polluter not the public will pay. Water companies must immediately be placed under special measures. Labour will strengthen regulation to make sure every single water outlet is monitored so we know the true extent of this sewage crisis.

“Water bosses who continue to oversee law-breaking on the scale now becoming apparent will face criminal charges, and we will give the water regulator powers to block payment of any bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth,” he added.

Bonuses this year

Senior executives from five of the 11 water companies that deal with sewage took bonuses this year, while at the other six they declined after public outrage.

Ofwat, the regulator, said the senior executives that did take a bonus did so from shareholders, not customers, and that from next year it will block customers’ money being used for “inappropriate” executive bonuses.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously and will always pursue and prosecute companies that are deliberately obstructive or misleading.

“We assess and record every incident report we receive – between 70,000 and 100,000 a year. We respond to every incident and attend those where there is a significant risk – including every category 1 or 2 incident in the North West since 2016.

“In the last six years we have pursued four successful criminal prosecutions against United Utilities and required the company to pay millions to environmental charities to put right the cause and effects of their offending.”

A United Utilities spokesman said: “Panorama has made a series of allegations about United Utilities, which we strongly reject.

“Pollution incidents are investigated and action taken where necessary. The Environment Agency, not United Utilities, determines both the initial and final categorisation of pollution incidents.

“This is its role as the regulator. We care passionately about the environment and the communities we serve and have just proposed an ambitious £13.7 billion investment plan – the biggest for over 100 years – to improve services for customers, communities and the environment here in the North West.”

The full findings were aired on BBC Panorama’s The Water Pollution Cover-Up at 8pm on Monday.

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