Geography, Earth and environment at Brighton

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Brighton academic spotlights water pollution reporting failings

Pioneering research by Dr Sarah Purnell on flaws in water and sewerage company pollution reporting has been published in a leading global journal.

Dr Sarah Purnell head shot The study published in the journal PLOS ONE by Dr Purnell – a Principal Research Fellow in the School of Applied Sciences – marks the first external analysis of nationwide pollution incident data. It found worrying trends in the pollution incident performance of water and sewerage companies across England, as well as questioning the onus on self-reporting by companies which made important judgements on comparative performance difficult.

Dr Purnell’s analysis of available data suggested that at least 5% of significant pollution incidents from sewage treatment works and pumping stations may go unreported. Failure to self-report pollution incidents not only worsens the impact on the water environment, but also hinders implementation of effective responses, investment into failing assets, as well as the investigation and prosecution of water and sewerage companies.

Current rules set by the Environment Agency (EA) requires water and sewerage companies to report at least 80% of pollution incidents overall, and 90% for pumping stations and sewage treatment works. Dr Purnell’s research found that when companies did not self-report pollution incidents, they may progress into more serious incidents.

Dr Purnell said: “Our study suggests that pollution incident self-reporting by water and sewerage companies is currently insufficient, highlighting a need to further investigate current and best practice. Worryingly, it’s apparent from our results that we may not have an accurate baseline of the number of pollution incidents actually occurring. It is therefore vital that improvements are made to avoid further severe impacts to the water environment. Rapid and consistent reporting of incidents is crucial for limiting damage.”

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Stephanie Thomson • October 7, 2021


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