Operational and management failures highlighted

Anglian Water Services Ltd (Anglian Water) has today (Tues) been fined a total of £150,000  for four times allowing illegal discharges from its sewage treatment works in Newmarket to the No 1 Public Drain – on one occasion bringing about the death of 1,200 fish.

Ipswich Crown Court yesterday heard that the offences before them had occurred because of operational and management failures and failures to respond to alarms. The investigations undertaken by the Environment Agency continued over a period of more than 12 months and Anglian Water’s attitude contributed to the length of time it took for the case to come to court. The company was also ordered to pay £28,973 Environment Agency costs.

The first of the offences took place in January 2006 when the level of ammonia discharged was more than twice the absolute level allowed and happened when the works were unattended.

The Environment Agency’s pre-programmed sampling at the sewage treatment works recorded the offence on January 17 and when officers investigated they discovered there had been a serious and ongoing  problem with ammonia levels in the two weeks leading up to the breach. It was also established that the then manager of the site, either by himself, or through other employees of the company, had subsequently removed, destroyed and falsified information in the site log book which recorded levels of ammonia in the discharge.

Prosecuting for the Environment Agency Miss Angela Morriss  told the court that an Anglian Water  member of staff acted as a whistleblower and informed senior management of the situation. They have since sacked the manager.

She said that the log book used for recording data had no numbers or references on its pages which would have alerted anyone to the removal of pages, pages were perforated and could be torn out easily without detection and there was no computer back-up or duplication of information which could regularly be audited.

‘Whilst the company disassociates itself from the behaviour of this manager, it had placed him in a senior position in relation to the works and failed to act upon concerns arising from its performance appraisal system,’ she said.

The second offence in July 2006 happened while Anglian Water was still being investigated for the first offence.

The Environment Agency had calls from members of the public who had seen dead and distressed fish in the Soham Lode, a progression of the Newmarket No 1 Public Drain. During the following 48 hours, 1,200 dead fish were removed from the river by Agency officers and the public.

An Agency officer found the water to be very turbid, noted an occasional smell of sewage and could see several thousand fish at the surface appearing sluggish and in distress.

Later that evening Anglian Water contacted the Environment Agency to ask for information on reports of dead fish on the Soham Lode. The following morning there were even more calls from people who had seen dead fish around Soham.

‘Members of the public living on or near the Soham Lode would have seen dead fish floating in the water close to their property,’ said Miss Morriss.

‘Some found it intolerable and one person had left a note to passers-by warning them against allowing their dogs to swim in the watercourse,’ she said.

Within a few days it had been established that the cause of the pollution was Newmarket Sewage Treatment Works which had allowed large amounts of improperly treated sewage to discharge into the watercourse when a pump failed.

The Crown Court was told that one pump in the works had been switched off inadvertently and the other had tripped. An alarm had then been ignored and settled sewage had been discharged for about fifteen and a half hours.

‘Anglian Water was aware of the failure by 11am on 28 July but did not report the matter to the Environment Agency until 31 July,’ said Miss Morriss.

‘At the time Agency staff were out investigating this matter as a pollution incident notified to them by members of the public and expended time and resources which could have been better directed to mitigating the impacts of the pollution and collecting evidence about the cause of the fish kill,’ she said.

On 4 September 2006 there was a further breach at the Newmarket Sewage Treatment Works (STW) while the investigations into the first two offences was still ongoing.

The third incident related to waste water with excessive amounts of ammonia – almost twice the absolute limit set in the company’s discharge consent –  being discharged into the No 1 Public Drain again.  On this occasion it appears that a piece of metal had sheared off within the works and caught under a valve, preventing the correct operation of some part of the treatment works.

Anglian Water technicians who attended the site discovered that there had been an alarm two days earlier but the control centre technician had been advised to ignore this particular alarm and only report the situation if it came on again. ‘For inexplicable reasons the technician took this to mean he should ignore this alarm every time it occurred and did so,’ she said.

The situation continued over different shifts with the alarm continually being ignored for two days. It was only discovered by Anglian Water staff making a routine visit who took action and alerted the Environment Agency.

Anglian Water asked the court to take into consideration, when sentencing, a fourth offence which took place in April this year when all incoming crude sewage was discharged straight into the Newmarket No 1 Public Drain with only preliminary screening – in similar circumstances to the second offence.

On this occasion an ammonia alarm installed after the first three incidents had been switched off because it was not working so the company had not been alerted to the overflow from its works.

The court was told that since the offences, Anglian Water had tabled measures to deal with the problems identified at the Newmarket STW and had installed an ammonia alarm at the works. Procedures had also been tightened up.

After the hearing; Environmental Crime Team Leader, Phil Henderson said: ‘What is most concerning is that this was not a one-off unforeseen failure at a sewage works, rather it was a series of three separate incidents, all forseeable, during 2006. Each of these incidents was characterised by significant failings on the part of Anglian Water.

‘The first incident involved the manager removing and destroying data, then coercing employees to falsify records to hide the fact the works were not operating within legal limits. The subsequent two events, one of which caused a major fish kill on the Soham Lode, were due to a large extent to Anglian Water’s failure to respond appropriately to automated alarms at Newmarket STW.

‘We are pleased that the court viewed these offences as serious and has fined the company accordingly. The public should be assured that we will investigate such offences thoroughly to ensure that water companies comply with legislation put in place to protect our environment. We now look to Anglian Water to demonstrate that they have learnt from these incidents and ensure that there is no repetition in the future.’

Anglian Water had earlier pleaded guilty at Mildenhall Magistrates’ Court to:

1) On or about 17 January 2006 at Newmarket, Suffolk  it did breach the conditions of a consent to discharge, issued to you by the Environment Agency, in that it  did allow a discharge from its sewage treatment works to the Newmarket No 1 Drain containing ammonia in breach of the upper tier or absolute limit imposed by its consent.
Contrary to Section 85(6) of the Water Resources Act 1991 
FINED £40,000

2) On or about the 27 July 2006 at Newmarket, Suffolk it did cause poisonous, noxious or polluting matter to enter controlled waters namely the Newmarket No 1 Public Drain.
Contrary to Section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991   

FINED £80,000

3) On or about 4 September 2006 at Newmarket, Suffolk it did breach the conditions of a consent to discharge, issued to it by the Environment Agency, in that it did allow a discharge from its sewage treatment works to the Newmarket No 1 Public Drain containing ammonia in breach of the upper tier or absolute limit imposed by its consent.
Contrary to Section 85(6) of the Water Resources Act 1991

FINED £30,000

Anglian Water had also asked the court to take into account one further offence at Newmarket Sewage Treatment Works of causing trade or sewage effluent to be discharged into controlled waters, namely the Newmarket No 1 Public Drain, on or about 13 April 2008.