'Chemical cocktail' of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting England's rivers, MPs warn

A ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting English rivers is putting public health and nature at risk, a damning report from MPs has warned.

The Environmental Audit Committee said only 14 per cent of English rivers meet good ecological standards with not a single one receiving a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.

The 140-page report highlights evidence given to MPs about rivers users becoming sick after swimming in the River Wharfe near Ilkley prior to its designation as bathing water, as well as paddlers on the Yorkshire Derwent falling “seriously ill”.

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The EAC said that it is currently difficult to get a complete overview of the health of rivers due to “outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring” following budget cuts to the Environment Agency

Issues of swimmers in the River Wharfe falling ill were highlighted in the report.Issues of swimmers in the River Wharfe falling ill were highlighted in the report.
Issues of swimmers in the River Wharfe falling ill were highlighted in the report.

It recommended a “step change in regulatory action, water company investment, and cross-catchment collaboration to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate”.

EAC chairman and Tory MP Philip Dunne said: “Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality. For too long, the Government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.

“Today, we are calling for these relevant bodies to come together and develop a system fit for the future. Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be ramped up, and even public awareness needs boosting on what can and cannot be poured down drains or flushed down the toilet. So many emerging pollutants are being missed by inadequate and insufficient monitoring, and court actions against polluters have fallen dramatically.

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“To deliver real change and improve the state of our rivers, a wide range of stakeholders must come together including the Government, regulators and water companies. The Environment Act signalled the first welcome sign of political will to tackle this issue. I hope this marks the start of Government regulatory and polluter action to improve the state of our rivers for all to enjoy.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the Government was going “further and faster” than previous administrations to protect and enhance the health of rivers.

She said: “Our Environment Act puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before and we are the first government to instruct water companies to take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows, which we have also put into law. We won’t hesitate to take enforcement action against water companies failing to reduce pollution and last year Southern Water were fined a record £90 million for their appalling sewage discharges.

“We are delivering targeted action and practical support to farmers to reduce pollution from agriculture, doubling the budget for this approach and rolling it out across the whole of England. And we are leading the way in tackling plastic pollution by clamping down on single use plastics and our carrier bag charge, as well as the new plastic packaging tax coming in this year.”

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