A campaign group is questioning an information blackout it says has been imposed by the Environment Agency over its investigation into suspected illegal waste water disposal in England.
The investigation began after water companies admitted to the agency that they may have illegally discharged untreated sewage from treatment plants into rivers and streams.
The survey covers more than 2,000 water treatment plants, almost a third of the total in England, and is likely to affect most if not all water companies.
Fish Legal sent the agency an environmental information request for details of the treatment plants being investigated, the period over which the investigation will be investigated and whether the investigation would mean that the agency’s already delayed response to pollution incidents would be further delayed.
However, the agency has declined to provide details, saying its investigation would be adversely affected despite the strong public interest in the case.
Penny Gane, the head of legal practice at Fish Legal, said she is trying to ensure that no veil of secrecy is placed over water company operations and the impact of storm surges.
Historically, EA investigations have taken years. Southern Water was fined £90million last year for dumping billions of gallons of raw sewage into protected seas after a seven-year investigation by the agency.
Gane said imposing a blackout on information about wastewater discharges would hamper campaign groups and the public who have exposed systematic abuse of the permit terms under which wastewater treatment plants are required to operate in the first place.
“The concern is that for years now nothing has been shared and people who have been dealing with the damage caused by sewage discharges cannot continue their work because the agency applies a blanket application of the exceptions under the legal process under the Environmental Information Regulations, which will continue for years to come,” Gane said.
In its response to Fish Legal, the agency said it could not disclose the information because it would affect its ability to investigate under exception 12(5)(b).
The agency acknowledged that “the public interest factor” is strong and said it will try to provide an update, if necessary, that does not undermine the confidentiality of the investigative process.
Fish Legal challenged the refusal to release information and has asked the agency to review its decision.
Environmental Audit Committee MPs said in a report Thursday they were concerned about the scale of discharges, large spills and false reports from water companies. They also cited evidence from Prof. Peter Hammond, who revealed the scale of illegal discharge of wastewater from treatment plants could be far greater than the amount reported to the agency by water companies. Hammond’s information came from requests under the Environmental Information Regulations to the EA and water companies.
“It is precisely this type of information that we fear will not be released now,” Gane said.
The Environment Agency declined to comment.