The Environment Agency (EA) team failed to inspect nearly half of the worst spills from water companies this year, the figures reveal.
The EA chief executive is facing questions after data seen by The Telegraph revealed that 12 of the 28 serious pollution incidents reported to the agency in the first six months of this year went unheeded.
The Environment Agency divides incidents into four categories, one and two of which are classified as “serious”, meaning they harm people, the environment or businesses.
Since 2018, one in four serious incidents at water companies has not been attended to by employees, the data shows, as activists have criticized the organization’s “incompetence”.
In May, Chief Executive Sir James Bevan told lawmakers on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee that the agency would “always put its boots on the ground” for a serious pollution incident.
Sir James now faces another cross-examination from lawmakers, who questioned why the data did not match their claims.
Sir Robert Goodwill, Conservative MP from Scarborough and Whitby and chairman of the Efra committee, said: “It is disappointing that, despite saying that they do respond to all incidents of this type, the data shows that they fall short of that promise.
“When we bring them to the committee again, that will be one of the questions we’re going to ask – if there’s a reasonable explanation as to why, or if they’re actually falling short of the performance goals they set, and if so what’s the reason.
“It could have been staff shortages because of Covid, recruitment issues, or it could be funding.
“It will be interesting to dig deeper into this data to explain this apparent discrepancy between what they said they did and what they are actually doing.”
The data also shows that many incidents considered low-level were later updated, suggesting that participating in seemingly low-level events is also important.
The data shows that a total of 1,484 pollution incidents were assessed as having a “potential” impact of Category 3 or 4 and subsequently given a final “actual” rating of 1 or 2, for the period 2017-2021.
Three-quarters of all 70,000 reported incidents since 2018 — including those related to water utilities and other polluters — have gone unaddressed, the data shows.
‘The incompetence of senior management at EA is exposed’
Feargal Sharkey, the Undertones frontman turned environmental activist, said: “This is not the first time the incompetence of senior management at the Environment Agency has been exposed.
“The mere idea that we can now enter into an ecocide that threatens the environment and also potentially threatens people’s lives has now been reduced to some sort of casual part-time care by the environmental agency.
“The responsibility for this lies with the board and senior management.”
Geraint Davies, the Labor MP who chaired the EA hearing, said: “The Environment Agency needs more powers and resources to protect the public from water companies that are more interested in maximizing profit by allowing sewage to pollute beaches than our public health”.
Rebecca Newsom, head of policy at Greenpeace UK, said: “The sewage scandal is out of control and it is completely wrong for the Environment Agency to pretend to have control over this when it clearly does not.
“But accountability ends with ministers who are responsible for significant budget cuts over many years that have crippled the watchdog and reduced its effectiveness.
“James Bevan must raise his hands, admit that he does not have the resources to face this crisis and demand that the government provide the necessary funding.
“Without beefing up our watchdogs with better funding and powers to crack down on environmental abuse, our rivers will turn into open sewers and our natural world will become a dumping ground for polluters who can get away with it.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency receives thousands of incident reports a year, from pollution to coastal erosion and flooding. Like any public organization, with finite resources, we will always focus our efforts on the biggest threats to the environment.
“However, we assess and record all incidents and will always be addressed if there is any significant risk to people or the environment. All the information we receive is used to shape regulatory interventions where it is most needed.”