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Legal targets on sewage welcomed, but urgent need remains for action on all sources of pollution

25 April 2023

Wildlife and Countryside Link welcomed today’s announcement from Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey that targets to cut sewage pollution will be made legally binding.

However nature experts also warned that the target must be stronger than that set in the Storm Overflows Reduction Plan, which would allow sewage discharges to continue in high priority wildlife sites for over two decades. They also said that a sewage target alone would not solve the river pollution crisis, saying that a legally-binding target should also be set for the overall ecological and chemical health of rivers.

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:

"Legally binding targets to cut sewage pollution are welcome, but matching the Government’s Storm Overflows plan would allow sewage to pour into sensitive wildlife sites for another twenty years or more. That’s terrible for globally important habitats like England’s chalk streams, and for vulnerable wildlife. When they’re set in law, the targets must be much faster, in line with the commitment to halt the decline of nature by 2030.

“Of course, sewage pollution is just one cause of the dire state of our rivers. We need simultaneous action on agricultural reform, chemicals management, and sewage solutions, underpinned by a strong legal target to improve the overall health of our freshwaters. This is a key issue on voters’ minds and should be a major commitment from all parties."

The recently launched Environment Act targets lacked an overall target for condition of our water environment. This means that when Water Framework Directive (WFD) requirements end in 2027, we will lack a legal outcome target for the overall health of the freshwater environment. [1]

On sewage pollution, Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Blueprint for Water Group is calling for:

  • 100% of Storm Overflows in priority nature sites to cease discharging or causing ecological harm by 2030, to ensure that achievement of the legally binding target to halt species decline is not undermined.
  • It should not be profitable for companies to pollute, to fail to meet environmental legislation, and for sewerage infrastructure to not be fit for purpose.
  • The payment of dividends and bonuses should be limited for companies who consistently breach their environmental permits.
  • Real-time, transparent reporting should be delivered by all water companies for all storm overflows as soon as possible.
  • A fully-funded, robust and comprehensive enforcement and monitoring regime.
  • At least two inland bathing waters to be designated per water company per year.

On chemicals, Wildlife and Countryside Link is calling for:

  • Stricter regulation, including group restricting, where all similarly structured chemicals would be banned if one was found to be harmful (preventing easy replacement of one dangerous chemical with another)
  • Phasing out known toxic chemicals (including PFAS ‘forever chemicals’) from all but the most vital uses.
  • Addressing the chemical cocktail effect, by routinely monitoring for known dangerous combinations of cocktails and factoring these into safety assessments for new chemicals before they are allowed on the market.
  • More rigorous monitoring, including through increased funding for the Environment Agency’s river monitoring programme.

Notes to editors:

  1. Progress could be made against discrete sector-based targets whilst overall water quality and environmental condition does not improve – or worse, declines.
    1. Link is calling for a new, more ambitious outcome-based target for the overall condition of rivers, streams and smaller water bodies to drive improvements for our waters and the wildlife they sustain. This should set a goal for overall waterbody health by 2037, building upon existing 2027 Water Framework Directive requirements.
    2. Currently, not a single English river, lake, estuary or coastal water is in overall ‘good’ health. The government failed to meet an initial legal target for all waterbodies to be in ‘good’ health by 2015, and has also missed the second 2021 deadline.
    3. Read more here.
  2. Read Link’s response to the recent Plan for Water here

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