Latest figures show extent of Wirral sewage spills

Statistics published by the Environment Agency on United Utilities (UU) show how at seven outlets across the borough, more than 1,000 hours of spills were recorded at seven outlets with the Bromborough Wastewater Treatment Works spilling for more than 4,000 hours. 

One of the highest outlets along the Arrowe Brook in Saughall Massie has not been monitored up until 2023 but last year saw sewage spills last the equivalent of 151 days spilling 237 times.

Overall, sewage was discharged for more than 21,000 hours in Wirral and councillors have angrily reacted to the statistics saying it showed “the extent of the failure throughout Wirral” while one described an Environment Agency map showing sewage spills for 2023 as the “cr*p map of the year”.

The data indicated how sewage spills across the North West occurred over the equivalent of 74 years with a more than 50% increase in spill duration compared to 2022. Sewage spills occurred more than 60 times at 666 UU managed locations, the highest of any water company in England with the total number of spills for the North West coming to 97,537.

According to the figures, 2023 was also the sixth wettest year since records began.

UU said it is trying to reduce the number of spills following legislation changes in 2021 and has consistently been one of the top-performing companies with the Environment Agency, the government body that regulates them. The company is also investing £13.7bn across the North West including £166m in Merseyside though this will later be paid for by customer’s water bills.

Steven Kenyon, country business leader for Merseyside (pictured, lead image), said, “We know there was a significant increase in rainfall throughout the 12 months and the system has in effect done what it is designed to do. When you get rainfall that is above a certain intensity, these relief points act as a relief from the network to protect people from flooding, that’s homes and businesses.

“If you look at the significant increase in rainfall, you would expect spills to correlate to that and go up. We know that some of the data we are seeing is in direct correlation with that rainfall but we do believe that what we have started off now is going to move us in the right direction.”

At Sandon Dock, a major waste treatment works takes in everything that has been flushed down the drain in Liverpool with 345.6m litres a day of sewage is brought up from underground sewers to be treated. The plant was first built in 1991 and later expanded to address a lack of wastewater treatment in Merseyside.

Before this, waste was just pumped straight into the Mersey, leading it to be likened to “an open sewer” in the 1980s by Conservative peer Michael Heseltine and in 1970 declared biologically dead. Now the sewage is routinely taken through multiple stages of treatment before it is released into the Mersey.

One of the main problems UU said they have is that roughly 85% of sewers in Merseyside are combined which means when it rains, this mixes in with sewage. If there is too much rain in the system, this means this and any sewage has to be discharged to avoid coming back up in people’s houses and the more combined sewers in an area, the more likely there will be a discharge.

Mr Kenyon said, “What’s been done over the last 35 years in terms improving what the system looks like, there’s a significant amount of investment that’s been put in to improve the sewer system and that’s resulted in better water courses despite the stuff that we read.

“We know about the number of species that we’ve just found in the Mersey is the highest it’s been in some time so there’s definitely improvements that have been over the period but it’s not enough so we want to take that and move that on into 2024.

“Spills are now unacceptable and we get that as a company and we are absolutely committed to reducing spills further in the future.”

He said, “We have started off some trial stuff across the region and we believe that that will start to eat into these spill volumes.”

Liverpool Waste Water Treatment Works – The huge site treats all sewage from Liverpool. 

Mr Kenyon added how people would start to see progress during a normal year for rainfall with spills dropping off following new infrastructure and new trials, adding, “We’re really hopeful to see that soon but we do need that break in the weather.”

When a discharge occurs, an alarm sounds instructing teams to get to the location as soon as possible. Evidence is then gathered to stop any pollution, and report to the Environment Agency.

UU has committed significant funding to address the problem including £32m for seven wastewater treatment works. Work is being carried out in Caldy to expand capacity, it has fitted monitors on all its outlets, and it is exploring whether New Brighton could be a pilot area for sustainable drainage.

Across the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority,  £12m is being used to develop a strategy on how to slow the amount of rainwater entering the system. To pay for all this investment in Merseyside and across the North West, people will see their water bills go up by roughly £110.

In November 2023, United Utilities saw an operating profit of £240m but Helen Apps, a spokesperson for the company, said,  “Since 2010, water bills have not risen more than the rate of inflation and yet we still invested billions of pounds in infrastructure over that time. People talk about the amount of profit we make each year but each year we invest nearly three times in our infrastructure that we make in profit.”

A BBC Panorama investigation in December also suggested a number of pollution incidents had been downgraded by UU across the North West of England including one at Sandon Dock and another at Wallasey. UU denies misreporting pollution.

Ms Apps said, “United Utilities does not designate pollution classifications. It’s the Environment Agency,” adding, “There’s no question of water companies downgrading it. We can’t do that because we don’t set those standards.”

“I think one of the issues is that the Environment Agency does not have the same resources it had 10 years ago and we would absolutely support the need for the Environment Agency to have the resources it needs to regulate thoroughly all water companies, ourselves included.

“We take the role of self-monitoring very seriously but it’s understandable that people might ask questions and they might say how can we trust that and in order to have that openness and trust even though we know we’re doing the right thing, it’s far better for the independent regulator to have that role. That’s the change we would like to see happen.”

Lead image: Steve Kenyon, county business leader for Merseyside for United Utilities, said he hoped to see sewage pollution decrease. All images credit: Ed Barnes

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