Thames Water have been fined an eye watering £20.3m for 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage entering the Thames after managers ignored warnings that it was a “failure waiting to happen”.
The untreated sewage was allowed to repeatedly flow into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Thames waterways for several months between 2013 and 2014.
This led to catastrophic consequences for both people and livestock who fell ill as a result. The spillage also killed fish, other animals and prompted many fishermen to lose their businesses.
This environmental incident boasts the largest penalty ever to be given to a water utility company, ten times more than the £2m fine paid in 2016 by Southern Water for polluting the beach in Margate.
At Aylesbury Crown Court, Thames Water admitted to 13 breaches of environmental law, over discharges from treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.
On 17th March, the utility company also pleaded guilty to a smaller discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.
Judge Francis Sheridan said: "This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action."
The Judge also pointed out that, on several occasions, Thames Water managers had ignored warnings and "risks identified by employees and others".
At the hearing last week, he justified his reasoning for imposing such a hefty sum stating it was "sufficiently large that they (Thames Water) get the message".
He added "Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees” and that "Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance."
The judge has also confirmed that "There is a history of non-compliance" from Thames Water.
The Environment Agency’s Chief Prosecutor, Anne Brosnan commented on the issue by stating that "Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works.”
She also confirmed the findings of the investigation into the firm, "Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the Environment Agency as required by water company industry protocol."
External Affairs Director of Thames Water, Richard Aylard released a statement on the matter. "We have failed in our responsibility to the environment and that hurts both personally and professionally because we do care.
"We've also failed in our responsibility to our customers, who pay us to provide an essential public service all the time, every day and not just some of the time, and we apologise for all of those failings.
"But in the three years since the last of those incidents we have learnt our lesson - there have been sweeping, far-reaching changes across the waste water business.
"That has included more people, more and better systems and more investments, and that is beginning to pay off.
"Our performance has improved considerably and we're also doing a lot of work which we're proud of in partnership with environmental groups across our area, working to improve rivers and not just get them back to where they should be."
Irrespective of the fine imposed, Mr Aylard insisted Thames Water customers would not face an increase in prices.
"The eye- watering fine handed down by Judge Sheridan at Aylesbury Crown Court against Thames water is a further example of the impact of recent sentencing guidelines and the courts intolerance of large-scale regulatory offending.
The judge's comments regarding the "shocking and disgraceful state of affairs", identified factors that may have been taken into account when determining the level of fine. Other factors may have been: repeated breaches, the history of noncompliance and impact on the wider community.
The clear message from this fine is that an organisation cannot benefit from a failure to fulfil its legal and obligations."
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