Thames Water CEO resigns after UK utility fined $5.6M for sewage pollution

Gatwick Stream
An incident created an overflow of sewage for some six hours that went unnoticed into Gatwick Stream, a U.K. court heard. Photo Credit: Nigel Cox, Wikimedia Commons

The U.K.’s largest water and wastewater utility, Thames Water, has pleaded guilty and been fined £3.3 million (CAD$5.6 million) for mistakenly running a stormwater pump that overflowed sewage into rivers near Gatwick Airport in 2017.

During the sentencing hearing, the court found that Thames Water had shown a “deliberate attempt” to mislead the U.K. Environment Agency over the sewage pollution incident by omitting water readings and submitting a report to the regulator denying responsibility.

The water utility pleaded guilty in February to four charges related to illegally discharging waste in October 2017, but had denied it misled the Environment Agency.

While no exact figure was released, the court stated that “millions of litres” of undiluted sewage were released into the Southern England rivers. A stormwater pump had accidentally been turned on and filled the system’s tank despite no substantial rainfall. The incident created an overflow of sewage for some six hours that went unnoticed, the court heard.

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“We are deeply sorry for the entirely unacceptable pollution incident into the Gatwick Stream and River Mole six years ago,” the company’s interim co-CEO Cathryn Ross said in a statement to media. “We fully accept that we made significant errors and exercised poor judgment at the time.”

The utility has paid £35.7 million (CAD$55.8 million) in government fines since 2017 over 11 cases of water pollution, not including the latest incident. 

Thames Water, which serves some 15 million households, is currently struggling with some £14 billion (CAD$24.1 billion) in debt, and the U.K. government has floated the concept of taking temporary ownership of the company. Thames Water has the highest ratio of debt to equity of any U.K. water company and fines imposed by regulators have only created more financial difficulties. 

Thames Water CEO Sarah Bentley stepped down from her position last month, following criticism of the utility’s raw sewage discharge.

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