Water companies have been accused of failing to monitor sewage discharges at popular British seaside resorts.
Data analyzed by the Liberal Democrats found that many monitoring devices were not installed or did not work “90% of the time”.
Lib Dems said data showed that a quarter of sewage discharges went unmonitored last year as a result of lack of monitors or failures.
The water companies insisted they were committed to solving the problem.
In Seaford, East Sussex, where the beach is popular with bathers and families, a monitor was working only a third of the time, according to a review of data by the Environment Agency.
Southern Water was forced to apologize last week after East Sussex beaches were closed due to untreated wastewater being released into the sea off the coast.
Pollution alerts were put in place at more than 40 beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales after heavy rains overloaded sewer systems.
Particular concern was raised regarding a handful of beaches with bathing water status – including Littlehampton in West Sussex and Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire – where the Lib Dems said some event duration monitoring (EDM) devices did not were installed.
In Devon and Cornwall, one in eight South West Water sewer monitors installed at designated bathing locations were either defective or not installed, they said.
Bathing water status is given to places where ministers expect “a large number of people to bathe” based on past trends.
Raw sewage was pumped into rivers and coasts about 375,000 times in 2021, down 25,000 from the previous year, according to the Environment Agency.
The agency said it has increased the number of combined sewage overflows (CSOs) monitored across the network from 800 in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020. All 15,000 will have it by the end of 2023, it added.
The government previously said it wanted to reduce bathing water discharges by 70% by 2035 and eliminate 160,000 sewage overflow incidents by 2040.
Water Minister Steve Double said earlier this week: “We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows.
“Work to combat sewage overflows continues apace.”
Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral researcher in marine pollution at the University of Plymouth, said that for these targets to be met, more “investment and accountability is needed from water companies to ensure this environmental disaster is not repeated.”
“Protecting our environment and the community that enjoys it is paramount,” she told BBC News, adding that it was “environmental vandalism” for raw sewage “to enter our environment due to [companies] shortcuts and lack of adequate infrastructure”.
When all monitors were considered – not just those from bathing points – Lib Dem’s analysis found that the water company with the worst record was Anglian Water, which had less than half (49%) of its sewage discharges measured due to to a faulty monitor or the fact that it was never installed.
This was followed by South West Water (30%) and Severn Trent Water (29%).
Stanley Johnson, the prime minister’s father, blamed his son’s administration for the sewage problem, saying he should have been pressed harder.
Linking the problem to Brexit, he said Britain’s beaches had been “cleaned up” after joining the European Union in 1973. Without “the EU’s push”, he added, the UK faces a “very dangerous and difficult situation”.
Both Anglian Water and Southern Water told BBC News that work has already been done to improve the problem.
“All but three of the designated bathing spots in our region are rated as good or excellent for bathing water quality, and all have EDM monitors installed in them,” said an Anglian Water spokeswoman.
She added that the company plans to have devices installed “on all CSOs by the end of 2023”.
At Southern, a spokesperson said the company monitors “87.8% of our storm surges, which gives us the ability to report pollution more accurately.”
He added: “This covers 959 of our 974 overflows – one of the highest levels in the industry.
“We have committed to a £145m investment to reduce pollution by 2025.”
Lib Dem MP Tim Farron, the party’s environmental spokesman, described a “national scandal” in which water companies could be guilty of “gross negligence in failing to install sewer monitors”.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for water regulator Ofwat said it was investigating “all wastewater companies” in England and Wales over “concerns” about how they “manage their treatment jobs”.
Cases are currently open for six of them, he told BBC News, adding: “Where we find problems, we will act.”
Last year, Conservative lawmakers defended themselves after 256 voted with the government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to support the Environment Bill.
The peers wanted to force water companies and the government to demonstrate progressive reductions in untreated sewage discharges and make it standard for them to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid the use of combined sewage overflows.
Some lawmakers said the proposed amendment was unnecessary, while others argued that dumping sewage into open water was better than entering people’s homes or businesses.