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Water Pollution Legislation

Law and regulation is the main way that authorities attempt to control or prevent the environmental problem of water pollution.

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Water pollution is generally caused by the human population who live near to the polluted body of water. It is the addition to water of materials that are harmful to the use of normally clean water, or stuffs that are generally detrimental to the water to which they are added.

If someone were to put together a list of the broad groups of pollutants that adversely affect water, it might read a little like this:

  • Pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used for agricultural purposes
  • Fertilisers and nutrients that cause eutrophication: a biological process whereby the introduction of excessive amounts of nutrients cause the plant life of a water body to expand exponentially, the algae and high levels of dead plant matter cause the oxygen levels in the water body to decrease, sometimes enough to kill the marine life
  • Microbiological agents
  • Industrial chemicals and toxins
  • Sewage and waste, including organic matter
  • Solids that do not dissolve in water, such as silts

Water Pollution Offences

Along with a fly-tipping charge for individuals throwing their unwanted items into a body of water, the new Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 set out other offences that can be committed concerning water pollution.

One offence is to cause or permit the discharge of anything into a body of water without a valid Environment Agency permit to do so. In the statute this type of offence is known as a water discharge activity. What they constitute can be any of the following:

  • releasing poisonous, noxious or polluting matter into any body of territorial waters (i.e. any water up to three nautical miles off the coast)
  • releasing trade or sewage effluent into any body of territorial waters
  • uprooting or cutting down considerable amounts of vegetation, without making provisions to clear it away

To permit groundwater to be polluted is also an offence; the legislation on this is complex as it covers several pieces of European law, but a wide definition would be pollution in a direct or indirect way. Indirect pollution can be when a pollutant seeps through the soil and comes into contact with groundwater in that way.

To cause water pollution

The definition of what causing pollution to water is at the court’s discretion, though it does not have to be established that the suspect had knowledge of the polluting action. Causing water pollution is a strict liability offence, which means that someone who did not actually commit the act that caused the pollution can be held liable, depending on the circumstances.

To knowingly permit water pollution

The definition of to knowingly permit an action that pollutes water is if the defendant had knowledge of the polluting act and did nothing reasonable to prevent it.

Environmental permit

A person or company can apply to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit, which allows them to release matter into water legally. These would be granted for activities such as the release of treated sewage.

Exemptions

There are a certain number of activities that are exempt from the illegality of releasing matter into a body of water, such things as emptying a septic tank. However, even for these activities there needs to be an application made to the Environment Agency for registration, there are rules to follow and no pollution of water must be caused.

Punishments

  • Magistrates’ court – maximum fine of £50,000, maximum prison sentence: 12 months
  • Crown Court – unlimited fine, maximum prison sentence: 5 years

Defences

Two possible defences that would help avoid a conviction for water pollution are that there was a danger to not releasing the waste into water, possibly to human health, and that subsequent to the discharge steps were taken to limit pollution, or that the pollution originates in a mine abandoned before 2000.

Regulation of Water Companies in the UK

In England and Wales there are several water companies who supply running water, whilst a few also offer sewage services. In Northern Ireland there is one state-run company that offers both services; a similar system operates in Scotland.

Ofwat

The Water Service Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is the regulator for water and sewage companies in England and Wales, whilst in Scotland there is the Water Regulator. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has a service regulator called the Utility Regulator that covers all utilities. These bodies set the amount that water providers can charge for their services and also resolve any consumer disputes that the water companies cannot handle themselves. These are all statutory bodies and in addition to them, in England and Wales, there is the Consumer Council for Water, which is an independent body and helps to look after consumer rights relating to water. There are similar independent bodies for both Scotland and Northern Ireland too.

Environmental Regulation

To counter potential water pollution from sewage material, the Environment Agency (EA) also regulates water and sewage companies to ensure that no harm comes to the environment from their activities. The EA sets standards that each company must adhere to and advises the whole industry on their environmental performance. By statute order the EA must also work with Ofwat in order to reach cooperation on matters that are a concern for both bodies.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Northern Irish Environment and Heritage Service perform a similar function to the EA in the rest of the UK. There are separate Drinking Water Inspectorates (DWI) for both England and Wales, and Northern Ireland which, with the help of local authorities, regulate the standard of drinking water for human consumption.

The Environment Agency – The body which is charged with dealing with water pollution – it has been tasked with prevention, risk reduction and ensuring pollution is cleaned up as promptly as possible if it occurs. The EA follows through prosecution on businesses that are guilty of water pollution. The general maintenance and improvement of all water bodies within territorial waters is also the job of the EA.

Local Authorities – In relation to water, what local authorities must do is set out in the Water Industry Act 1991. The regulation of water supply quality is one of their major roles; in order to do this they must sample the water supply and test it for any health risks. This sampling is done regularly as a matter of procedure, but can also be done in consequence of a complaint by a member of the public. If a local authority finds something that needs the attention of the water supplier, then they must inform them and the supplier must do something to remedy the problem. Each water supplier also has the duty to provide local authorities with an annual report and also inform them of any possible health risk that may be carried by the water.

Drinking Water Inspectorate – The DWI is the body that assesses and maintains the standards of drinking water provided to the citizens of England and Wales. Water suppliers must submit monthly quality data reports to the DWI, which also inspects the water sampling process and colludes with the local authority to limit any risk to health. The DWI will also force water suppliers to improve the quality of their water if they deem it necessary.

Water companies – The main role for the water companies in regulation relates to the fitting of plumbing systems and water using appliances. The regulations for the standard of these were set down in the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Fittings Regulations 1999. According to this the water companies have the ability to deal with any waste that results from poorly fitted water systems; they also have the ability to inspect any newly fitted water system to ensure that it conforms to the standards as set out in legislation. If they find a water system fitted not in accordance with the regulations then the water company may legally require someone responsible to correct the matter and they have the power to cut off the water supply to the property where the system does not conform to regulations. It is possible that someone responsible for fitting a non-regulation conforming water system could face prosecution.

UK Legislation to prevent water pollution

The first environmental law regulating water pollution is from the Late Middle Ages and 1388, which made it illegal to dispose of animal waste, dung and litter in rivers. A large gap in protection of the rivers then ensued until the nineteenth century brought us the River Pollution Prevention Act 1876. The River Boards Act 1948 created authoritative bodies known as river boards that had powers to control water supply and sewage.

The River (Prevention of Pollution) Acts of 1951 and ’61 cohered the laws for protecting river from pollution, whilst the Control of Pollution Act 1974 helped to strengthen the laws that aimed to prevent water pollution.

Come the Water Act 1989 the National Rivers Authority was created to control and regulate the aspects of the waterways in England that dealt with pollution. This was abolished in 1995 with the Environment Act and the Environment Agency, dealing with all aspects of the environment, was formed the next year. There were also established equivalent bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Regarding specific laws the Water Resources Act 1991 consolidated what already existed. This made it an offence to discharge anything into a river without a permit from the Environment Agency or one of its equivalent bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main principle established in this act is that the polluter pays for the damage that the material they released into the waterways has done.

The Waters Act 2003 is the latest piece of legislation concerning the UK’s rivers and canals. The major developments heralded by this act are to ensure that water companies conserve water and to give the Environment Agency the power to alter or revoke the licence of a water abstraction company who harm the environment.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 is the latest piece of legislation to protect the UK’s waters generally. It includes provisions to safeguard the British coastal environment.

UK Legislation to prevent water pollution

The first environmental law regulating water pollution is from the Late Middle Ages and 1388, which made it illegal to dispose of animal waste, dung and litter in rivers. A large gap in protection of the rivers then ensued until the nineteenth century brought us the River Pollution Prevention Act 1876. The River Boards Act 1948 created authoritative bodies known as river boards who had powers to control water supply and sewage.

The River (Prevention of Pollution) Acts of 1951 and ’61 cohered the laws for protecting river from pollution, whilst the Control of Pollution Act 1974 helped to strengthen the laws that aimed to prevent water pollution.

Come the Water Act 1989 the National Rivers Authority was created to control and regulate the aspects of the waterways in England that dealt with pollution. This was abolished in 1995 with the Environment Act and the Environment Agency, dealing with all aspects of the environment, was formed the next year. There were also established equivalent bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Regarding specific laws the Water Resources Act 1991 consolidated what already existed. This made it an offence to discharge anything into a river without a permit from the Environment Agency or one of its equivalent bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main principle established in this act is that the polluter pays for the damage that the material they released into the waterways has done.

The Waters Act 2003 is the latest piece of legislation concerning the UK’s rivers and canals. The major developments heralded by this act are to ensure that water companies conserve water and to give the Environment Agency the power to alter or revoke the licence of a water abstraction company who harm the environment.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 is the latest piece of legislation to protect the UK’s waters generally. It includes provisions to safeguard the British coastal environment.

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