England’s rivers are so polluted that not one can be certified safe for swimmers, reports claim.
An investigation by the Times newspaper has revealed that rivers in England are not tested enough to be considered safe for swimming claiming that 86% of the nation’s waterways fall short of the EU’s ecological standard — the minimum threshold for a healthy river — up from 75% a decade ago.
In addition, half of all stretches of river monitored by the Environment Agency exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides.
Despite serious pollution incidents frequently exceeding the limits, prosecutions by the agency against the regional monopolies that run Britain’s sewage systems have declined — to three last year from 30 in 2014.
David Slater, a former director of the Environment Agency, told the newspaper: “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement.”
Last month Southern Water was fined a record £127m for “deliberate misreporting” of data and dumping an unknown amount of untreated sewage into rivers and streams and on to beaches over seven years.
A criminal investigation into this is now under way.
Safe limits for cadmium — a carcinogen used in batteries, which Mr Slater fears is leaching from landfill sites — have been breached more than 1,200 times in the past two years.
Those who swim in infected waters face danger from bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria.
Diseases such as leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A are also linked to sewage pollution and can be fatal.
Almost 10% of the tests carried out by the Environment Agency for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit” — the highest proportion recorded since testing began 20 years ago.
Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027 but the World Wildlife Fund says this is unlikely.
The agency missed its target for reducing the number of serious and significant pollution incidents to 400. The figure rose to 493.
The number of water quality tests taken by the agency for all pollutants fell to 1.3 million last year from nearly five million in 2000.
The agency says that monitoring has become “more targeted, risk-based and efficient”, peaking in 2013 after “extensive water quality investigations required for the first cycle of the [EU] water framework directive”.
The agency described the performance of Britain’s water companies last year as “simply unacceptable” after 56 “serious pollution incidents”.
The agency aims for zero by next year.
A statement from the Environment Agency said: “Water quality is now better than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, largely due to the £25 billion of investment that the Environment Agency has required water companies to make.
“It is wrong to claim the agency’s budget and staffing levels are dramatically impacting on our ability to monitor water quality. We are the largest environmental protection agency in Europe, with a budget of over £1 billion. Numbers of operational staff have increased by 10% since 2016.”
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