Thousands of hours of sewage discharges have been recorded across Britain. Image: Unearthed
Britain’s most sensitive wilderness areas are filled with unique wildlife, precious biodiversity – and raw sewage.
Water companies pumped sewage into protected conservation areas in England and Wales nearly 1,200 times last year, analysis by Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed has revealed.
This translates to approximately 305,963 hours of sewage spillage, polluting popular beauty spots from the Lake District to the Dorset coast to Brecon Beacons national park.
The analysis looked at overflow pipes classified as ‘high priority’ by the government – pipes spilling into or within 50 metres of a protected nature site. This interactive map reveals the locations of all the polluting spills that occurred in these areas.
Wild swimmers should be outraged, warned Josh Harris, head of communications at environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage.
“The grubby tentacles of the sewage scandal are everywhere,” he said.
“From ‘excellent’ rated bathing waters, to sites of special scientific interest, those in power are failing to protect even the most protected of locations from the scourge of raw sewage.”
Which protected areas are most impacted by sewage pollution?
Britain’s lakes, rivers and seas are regularly polluted with excrement and chemical effluent. Water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s waterways around 825 times per day in 2022, totalling more than 1.75 million hours of spillage.
Unearthed’s analysis focused on discharges specifically within conservation sites.
In total, 515 protected areas were affected, including England and Wales’ Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Area of Conservation (SACs), Special Protected Area (SPAs) and Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance). These areas saw 305,963 hours of raw sewage spilled.
In Plymouth – home to the UK’s first ever national marine park – the Plymouth Sound and Estuaries saw more than 11,000 hours of spillage.
Around 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England. But even these ultra-rare habitats were impacted – over 38,000 hours of sewage were released into or within 50m of chalk streams in England last year.
Why are Britain’s beaches and rivers so polluted?
The UK’s 19th century plumbing infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a growing population. To reduce pressure on the sewer network, the Environmental Agency permits water companies to release overflow after heavy rains.
But public outrage is growing at British waterways being flooded with contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
The UK has some of the most polluted beaches and waterways in Europe. Only 14% of rivers in England have “good” ecological status, the Environmental Agency has warned. Late last month, at least 57 swimmers fell ill with sickness and diarrhoea after competing in the World Triathlon Championship Series off the Sunderland coast.
The government published its Storm Overflow Reduction Plan last summer, and promised to make water companies cover the cost of sewage clean-up – but campaigners have called for tougher penalties for storm overflows.
“We need decision makers who take real action, not just spout empty rhetoric while our ecosystems degrade and collapse,” Harris said.
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