image captionSouthern Water illegally dumped untreated water at 17 sites, including Bosham, West Sussex

Southern Water has been fined a record £90m for deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea.

The company admitted 6,971 illegal spills from 17 sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex between 2010 and 2015.

His Honour Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson said the offences had been "committed deliberately" by Southern Water's board of directors at the time.

Lawyers for the company had told Canterbury Crown Court the spills were the result of "negligence".

The offences were discovered as part of the Environment Agency's largest ever criminal investigation, which began after shellfish were found to be contaminated with E. coli.

Raw sewage had been diverted away from treatment works and into the environment, allowing the company to avoid financial penalties and the costs of upkeep and upgrades, the court heard.

Mr Justice Johnson said Southern Water "showed a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for the precious and delicate ecosystems along the north Kent and Solent coastlines, to human health and to the fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters".

'Occurring events'

The total volume of untreated sewage dumped into the environment was estimated between 16 to 21 billion litres, or 7,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the court heard.

In Bedhampton Creek, in Havant, Hampshire, anglers reported finding sanitary towels, condoms and tissues in the water, along with a strong smell of sewage, the court heard.

Residents in Swalecliffe, Kent, said discharges from the sewage works were "occurring events", the court heard.

image copyrightGoogleimage captionThe company illegally discharged raw sewage into the environment in Swalecliffe, Kent

The "sheer scale" of offending meant it was "inherently unlikely this was due to a small number of rogue employees".

"It is far more likely to be due to deliberate disregard for the law from the top down," the judge said.

The offences had been aggravated by Southern Water's "persistent pollution of the environment" which had led to 168 previous convictions and cautions, he said.

He said the scale of the fine was intended to "bring home to the management of this and other companies the need to comply with laws that are designed to protect the environment".

It is the largest sentence issued by a court after an Environment Agency investigation, exceeding a £20m fine received by Thames Water in 2017.

In March 2020, Southern Water admitted 51 counts at Maidstone Crown Court, covering discharges of untreated sewage from sites in:

  • Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent
  • Slowhill Copse in Marchwood, Hampshire
  • Beaulieu, Hampshire
  • Millbrook, Hampshire
  • Budds Farm in Havant, Hampshire
  • Swalecliffe, Kent
  • Queenborough, Kent
  • Sittingbourne, Kent
  • Teynham, Kent
  • Herne Bay, Kent
  • Ashlett Creek, Fawley, Hampshire
  • Bosham, West Sussex
  • Chichester, West Sussex
  • Portswood in Southampton, Hampshire
  • Thornham in Emsworth, Hampshire
  • Woolston in Southampton, Hampshire
  • Diamond Road, Whitstable, Kent

During periods of heavy rain, water companies are permitted to divert untreated waste water away from treatment plants, discharging sewage straight into the environment to prevent sewers backing up.

However, the Environment Agency found that on thousands of occasions untreated sewage had left Southern Water sites through this route during periods of lower rainfall.

Directing sewage straight into rivers and seas improved the quality of treated water leaving the works, which is regularly tested and can lead to heavy fines if standards fall, the court heard.

Mr Justice Johnson said the offences had been motivated by a desire to "focus the company's attention on those metrics that increase its income, disregarding its wider compliance obligations".

Chief executive Ian McAulay, who was appointed in 2017, was in court on Friday alongside chairman Keith Lough, who joined in 2019.

After the hearing, Mr McAulay said: "We have heard what the judge has said today and will reflect closely on the sentence and his remarks.

"He has rightly put the environment front and centre which is what matters to all of us. "

Mr McAulay said the fine would not affect customers' bills or infrastructure investments, with shareholders due to bear the cost.

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