SOUTH West Water have been fined £150,000 for spilling sewage onto a bank holiday beach and polluting a village stream.
The water company allowed potentially dangerous sewage to flow down Dawlish beach in the height of the summer tourist season in one incident and caused a fish kill in the other.
Engineers blamed blockages in their system caused by people flushing wet wipes down the toilet for one of the spills and a discarded brick for blocking a sewer in the other.
South West Water (SWW), which has 126 previous convictions for environmental offences, were ordered to pay a total of £175,475 in fines, costs and statutory surcharge at Exeter Crown Court as a judge followed new sentencing guidelines which call for much higher penalties on water companies.
The two spills happened at Polly Brook, Woodbury, in September 2014 and Dawlish on August bank holiday Friday in 2015.
Fish were killed in the Woodbury spill, which the company blamed on wet wipes and other debris blocking a sewer, and the town beach at Dawlish was closed by the second, which they blamed on a blue-coloured brick being thrown down a manhole.
SWW, which is based at Peninsula House in Exeter, admitted allowing an illegal discharge at Woodbury into the brook in September 2014.
They also admitted discharging polluting matter into Dawlish Brook which was not in accordance with its environmental permits.
Judge Geoffrey Mercer fined them £70,000 with £19,033 costs for the Woodbury spill and £80,000 with £6,202 costs for the Dawlish offence. There was a £120 victim surcharge for each case.
He said: ‘Telemetry alerted the company about the problem in Dawlish at 8.15am. I have no doubt SWW were negligent in failing to ensure anyone attended prior to 1.45pm.
‘I understand the volume of alarms that day but it was simply unacceptable there should have been such a delay between the alarm suggesting there was a discharge at Dawlish on a bank holiday Friday and it being dealt with promptly.’
He said the Woodbury incident showed there had been ‘systematic failures’ in the way SWW informed the Environment Agency.
He said: ‘I retain more than a nagging doubt whether SWW would have notified the agency on the Monday; not because of any conspiracy but because it would have been assumed that someone had done so over the weekend.’
During cases heard over three days at Exeter Crown Court earlier this month, the judge was told both spills were caused by blocked sewers.
The Environment Agency said SWW failed to notify them immediately of the Woodbury spill and failed to stop the Dawlish pollution as quickly as possible.
The company sent an engineer to the Dawlish incident at 12.57pm after being alerted by an automatic alarm more than four hours earlier.
He went to the wrong location and reported back that it was a false alarm. A second engineer was sent after complaints from the public about raw sewage in the stream and on the beach.
Officials from Teignbridge Council closed the beach for a day for the protection of the public. A reading in Dawlish Brook showed levels of e-coli which were 70 times greater than normal.
Mr Martin Meeke, QC, mitigating, said the SWW is investing heavily in improving the sewage network and reducing spills and upgrading telemetry.
He said: ‘Many of the problems which the company encounters are the result of a build up of what is known as rag. The main problem for them and other water companies are wet wipes.
‘While normal lavatory paper dissolves in water, wet wipes do not because they have a higher percentage of plastic.’
After the case, a spokesman for SWW?said:?‘We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously. Unfortunately, on two isolated occasions in the past, inappropriate material disposed of via the sewerage network led to blockages which caused the operation of two stormwater overflows.
‘Since these historic incidents – one of which was more than two years ago – our environmental performance has improved and continues to improve.
‘Between 2015 and 2020 we are spending over £460 million on improving the sewerage network, almost 20 per cent more than the sum spent in our last five-year regulatory contract.
‘We operate an extensive network that includes 15,700 kilometres of public sewers, 900 sewage pumping stations and 655 sewage treatment works as we deliver our services 24/7 to customers around the region.
‘We constantly review network performance and on the rare occasions when things do go wrong, we learn from our mistakes and take appropriate action.’