Southern Water has been ordered to pay a record £90 million in fines after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage that polluted rivers and coastal waters.
It pleaded guilty to 6,971 unlawful sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015, which were found to be caused by “deliberate failings”, causing major harm to protected areas, conservation sites and oyster beds and polluting rivers in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.
The discharges lasted a total of 61,704 hours – the equivalent of 2,571 days or just over seven years.
According to the Environment Agency, the case is the largest criminal investigation in its 25-year history, which saw pollution offences from 16 wastewater treatment works and one storm overflow brought together in one prosecution at Canterbury Crown Court.
Judge Justice Johnson said: “Each of the 51 offences seen in isolation shows a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosytems along the North Kent and Solent coastlines, for human health and for the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters.
“Each offence does not stand in isolation. It is necessary to sentence the company for the totality of the offences to which it has pleaded guilty. But even that does not reflect the defendant’s criminality. That is because the offences are aggravated by its previous persistent pollution of the environment over very many years.”
The court was told Southern Water “deliberately presented a misleading picture of compliance” to the Environment Agency, hindering proper regulation of the company.
The fine will be paid out of the water company’s operating profits, protecting customers from having to pick up the tab for illegal pollution.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow added: “The findings in this case were shocking and wholly unacceptable. Water companies should not be letting this happen and those that do will be punished by the full force of the law.
“This fine, the largest ever imposed on a water company, is absolutely appropriate and welcomed. It will rightly be paid solely from the company’s operating profits, rather than customer bills.
“I have spoken directly to the industry about taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, protecting rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them. Some companies are making welcome strides but we still need to see significant improvements from others.”
Southern Water said it is “deeply sorry” for the historic incidents that led to the sentencing and fine.
Chief Executive Ian McAulay added: “Our actions were completely unacceptable, which is why we pleaded guilty to the charges. We have heard what the judge has said today and he has rightly put the environment front and centre.
“I am passionately committed to the environment and since I joined Southern Water in 2017, we have changed the way we operate and we continue to transform across the areas of risk and compliance, measurement and self-reporting. We continue to make progress and invest to protect the environment while delivering services at a fair price for our customers.
“Today’s fine will not impact customers’ bills or investment in our transformation. Our shareholders are bearing the cost of the fine.”