Sewage in the sea

A legal case to stop sewage pollution: how did we get here?

3 minute read

Sandy Luk - Billy Barraclough

Sandy Luk, CEO Marine Conservation Society

28 Nov 2022

Spills of untreated sewage into rivers and seas from so-called storm overflows have become a standard news item and seem to have hit a new high in the last year.

We’re taking legal action against the UK Government as a result of their failure to address the sewage pollution scandal facing English shores.

Our research shows that there are 1,651 storm overflows within 1km of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in England, spilling sewage into the sea for a shocking 263,654 hours – the equivalent of 30 years – in 2021.

We are suing the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for not taking effective action on sewage pollution entering our seas. We’ve not taken this step lightly.

We’re seeing the physical impacts of this pollution on our beaches. Between 2015 and 2020 we found an average of 38 sewage-related items polluting every 100 metres of beach cleaned in England. At our flagship Great British Beach Clean in September this year, we found some form of sewage related pollution on 73% of the beaches surveyed in England.

Summary map CSO in MPA

It hardly needs saying that this is not good for the health of our seas. Plastic, chemicals and bacteria are all part of the cocktail of pollution that makes up untreated sewage spills. It won’t matter if we have the most effective management of marine protected areas, or the most sustainable fisheries management in the world  (both key Marine Conservation Society ocean goals) if the sea is a polluted, toxic soup.

It’s not good for people either. A healthy sea is crucial to our own health and wellbeing and to many livelihoods, too. Our members, supporters, volunteers and partners share our passion for a healthy ocean, for people and planet, which is why we’re taking this drastic step.

How did we get here?

At the Marine Conservation Society we’re in the business of being positive and optimistic about the future of our ocean. We are emphatically not doom-mongers. We pride ourselves on being science- and evidence-based, and solutions focused.

When, in August, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recognised the issue, and published its new ‘Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan’ for England we were hopeful.

Unfortunately, Defra’s Plan ignores the evidence, and fails to offer a solution to the issue of sewage spills from storm overflows:

  • It virtually excludes most coastal waters (except for bathing waters) either directly or indirectly, with some types of marine protected areas and shellfish waters totally excluded. This means around 600 storm overflows are not covered by the Plan and will continue to – completely legally - be able to dump uncontrolled amounts of sewage directly into English seas and beaches.
  • The proposed time frames lack all urgency - with long-stop targets set for 2050, and the earliest, most urgent targets not to be met until 2035.
  • There are no targets to implement upstream solutions or to stop harmful pollutants, including chemicals and microplastics at source.

In our consultation response in March, we pointed all of this out and proposed solutions. The plan has not been amended since the consultation.

In early August, we went to meet DEFRA, to draw their attention to the urgency of these issues and recommend strong action. We were told that storm overflows don’t impact estuaries and coastal waters because the sea dilutes the sewage that has been discharged. A ridiculous statement showing either a complete lack of understanding of the impact of the cocktail of plastics, chemicals and pathogens in raw sewage on marine life, or a complete disregard and disrespect for the importance of that marine life.

So, driven to further action by our frustration, we wrote an open letter to DEFRA to highlight our concerns and ensure more transparency on the impacts of the Plan on coastal communities, who had lobbied so hard for DEFRA to address coastal sewage spills. To date, we have had no response to our open letter.

Which is how we have found ourselves here – taking this step of last resort – bringing a legal action to challenge DEFRA's Plan and to ask the courts to order DEFRA to strengthen it. We feel we owe it to all our members, supporters, volunteers and the coastal communities we work with and represent.

You can support the work we're doing to recover the health of the ocean by making a donation or becoming a member.