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  1. Environment
17 May 2024

Does bad press matter to water companies?

Despite a series of negative stories about the state of our waterways, the firms in charge of them are still raking it in.

By Will Dunn

It’s been a big week for Britain’s new Great Stink, the focus of this week’s New Statesman cover feature, which looks at the growing public dismay at the state of our waterways. But does bad press mean anything to a monopoly?

United Utilities, Severn Trent and Pennon Group are among the 112 companies upon which the London Stock Exchange has bestowed its “Green Economy Mark”, which encourages investors to finance companies “that contribute to positive environmental outcomes”.

Among the green outcomes to which United Utilities has contributed is the fact that Lake Windermere now turns green in the summer, thanks to algal blooms that are visible from space and which might be connected to the millions of litres of untreated sewage the company released into the lake (as a BBC investigation revealed on Wednesday). Pennon Group’s contribution to the green economy has included dozens of south Devon residents going green, after they were sold tap water (Pennon owns South West Water) that contained intestinal parasites.

The MPs of the Environmental Audit Committee heard evidence on Wednesday from experts in water quality, who told them that “not a single English river” is free from chemical pollutants. The far greater danger, however, is from the pathogens that grow in sewage and multiply as the weather heats up. The Environment Agency doesn’t monitor the most dangerous pathogens – only E coli bacteria, which are an indicator that other bugs are likely to be present – and it doesn’t offer any guidance as to whether waters are safe to swim in outside of a handful of designated bathing sites.

Charles Watson, chair of River Action UK, gave the committee a stark warning. “It’s half-term in three weeks’ time,” Watson said. “Tens of thousands of families are going to be in the rivers, on our beaches, going to lakes, none of which have bathing status protections. I’m not exaggerating: somebody is going to die because of the pathogen levels we have in the rivers.”

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Watson said that when his organisation surveyed the Thames prior to the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in March and found dangerously high levels of E Coli bacteria, the Environment Agency was “not remotely interested”, and neither the water companies nor the regulator are prepared to issue any advice on whether it is safe to swim outside of the tiny number of spots that are designated for bathing. There is, he said, “no safety net to protect the public from what is going into our rivers”.

Peter Hammond, the computational biologist who showed me the grim reality of river pollution for this week’s magazine, told the committee that if microplastics aren’t filtered out of sewage, they can enter the food chain and become nanoplastics, which are small enough to cross the placenta. The first stools of newborn babies, he told MPs, have been found to contain nanoplastics. The health implications will become clear in the decades to come.

Surely these terrible revelations took a chunk out of the companies discharging sewage into our waterways? Nope: United Utilities’ annual financial statement, released yesterday morning, showed that profits increased by 17.5 per cent in the last financial year, and this week the company’s share price hit a six-month high. Pennon Group paid another “sector-leading” dividend to shareholders last month and its £380m acquisition of Sutton and East Surrey Water looks likely to be approved by the Competition and Markets Authority. It’s business as usual for water companies.

The public outcry will keep coming, but when you have millions of captive customers PR is very much a secondary concern. There’s a big appetite for properly funded and competent regulation, but investors seem confident this won’t happen for a while; the current government is busy with other important issues, such as preventing schools from teaching sex education. I worry that Charles Watson is right, and that it will take a tragedy to make anything happen quickly.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: In search of the green and pleasant land]

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