Near the southwest tip of England, where the region of Cornwall meets the Atlantic, is Longrock Beach.
It’s part of the mythical coastline around Penzance – a liminal space where the sky meets the ocean, dotted with prehistoric monuments. Off the shore from Longrock, an island topped by a fairytale castle rises up from the water: St. Michael’s Mount.
Longrock is idyllic – safe and family friendly, with shallow water, and “favored with Penzance locals,” according to the tourist board.
Last week it was rather less so. Longrock was one of 100 beaches around England which had raw sewage disgorged into the sea during the peak summer period.
In Cornwall alone, 14 of 80 bathing beaches were off limits due to sewage.
And Longrock has been hit again this week, with a pollution warning in place on August 26, just in time for the August Bank Holiday, which will see Brits heading for the coast.
A beach in Brighton and Hove, perhaps the most popular seaside escape for Londoners, is also closed for this peak weekend. According to charity Surfers Against Sewage, the southern coast is the worst affected. “Brighton and Hove seem to be deluged over and over again,” says CEO Hugo Tagholm.
So far this bathing season, Surfers Against Sewage has logged 654 notifications of sewage overspill from 171 locations. Longrock is joint top, with 19 separate incidents since May.
“It doesn’t do us any favors in terms of perception,” says Malcolm Bell, CEO of Visit Cornwall, the tourist board.
So has ‘Plague Island,’ as it was notoriously named by the New York Times during the pandemic last year, become ‘Poop Island’?
A Victorian system
Sewage flowing onto beaches is, sadly, nothing new. Who can forget 2018, when Boracay island in the Philippines was closed for almost six months, after president Rodrigo Duterte labeled it a “cesspool”?
This year, a sewage spill closed the sands of Long Beach, California.
But in the UK, it’s becoming all too common. “We have quite an old sewage system that dates back to Victorian times, and waste water from homes and businesses is transported in the same pipes that collect rainwater,” says Rachel Wyatt, policy and advocacy manager for the UK’s Marine Conservation Society.
When the volume in the pipes becomes too much, rather than backing up into homes and streets, it’s pumped out of 15,000 storm overflows around the country, which empty into rivers and the sea.
The UK has been in drought this summer – until last week, when it was hit by torrential rain.
The result? Poopy beaches, a phenomenon which Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, called a “growing public health problem” in a joint opinion piece in June.
In the article Whitty co-authored with the chairs of water industry regulator Ofwat and the UK Environment Agency, raw sewage discharge “should be exceptionally rare.” Instead, they say, in the UK it is an “increasing problem.”
Some locations are seeing “up to 200 discharges a year,” they write – “obviously unacceptable on public health grounds.”
It’s not only affecting beaches. Only 14% of UK rivers meet “good ecological standards,” according to a 2021 report.
“No one expects river water to be of drinking standard, but where people swim or children play they should not expect significant doses of human [faeces],” reads Whitty’s report.
Often, people don’t realize what they’re swimming in. The only real-time map for UK beach pollution is one provided by Surfers Against Sewage.
Millions of hours of sewage dumping
Figures released in March by the Environment Agency showed that water companies discharged untreated sewage into English waterways for more than 2.7 million hours in 2021, in over 370,000 separate incidents. At least, those are the incidents we know about – because only 89% of storm overflows, as they’re called, have monitors tracking when they discharge.
In Cornwall and Devon, two of the most popular beach destinations in the UK, one in eight monitors at bathing destinations is either non-existent or not working, according to analysis of Environment Agency data by the Liberal Democrats political party. They claim that 24% of sewage discharges across England were unmonitored last year. The party’s spokesperson for the environment, Tim Farron MP, calls it a “national scandal.”
“The public needs to know how safe, if at all, popular beaches are for swimming,” he said.
Tagholm agrees: “The beach holiday is loved up and down the country, yet sewer overflows pose a regular risk to all those swimming. This has been going on for a long time, and we’ve campaigned for many years for more transparency.”
Last month in a report, the Environment Agency called water companies’ pollution “shocking,” “much worse than previous years,” and “simply unacceptable.”
There were 62 “serious pollution incidents” – the highest since 2013.
There was also no sign of a “sustained trend for improvement” or “compliance with conditions for discharging treated waste water” over the past few years, it stated.
Chair Emma Howard Boyd even recommended jail for CEOs of offending companies. They are “behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can,” she wrote.
Water companies in the UK were privatized in 1989. There are now nine companies operating in England, seven of which were responsible for “an increase in serious incidents” last year. In EA ratings for 2021, four companies were given just two stars out of four, denoting the need for “significant improvement.”
Two – Southern and South West Water, the latter responsible for the sewage on the beach at Longrock – were awarded just one star, or “terrible across the board.” A spokesperson for South West Water declined to comment, but said that all storm overflows will have monitors by the end of the year, and it will invest £330 million ($387 million) over the next three years into its waste water network.
The Environment Agency has imposed fines of over £138 million on water companies since 2015. It also recommends that all storm overflows get monitors, and for data to be made public, and has begun what Howard Boyd calls the UK’s “largest ever investigation into environmental crime… looking at whether [water companies] have deliberately broken the law in relation to the treatment and discharge of sewage.”
Meanwhile Ofwat currently has waste water enforcement cases open against six of England’s water companies: South West Water, Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Thames Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water.
And three French politicians have written to the European Commission, accusing the UK of risking marine life by neglecting their environmental commitments.
Is Brexit to blame?
So whose fault is it? Stanley Johnson, father of the UK’s prime Minister Boris, blamed his own son’s government – and the UK’s Brexit from the European Union.
Interviewed on LBC radio, Johnson said that without the “EU push” the UK government has not “pushed this thing as it should have.”
In 2012, the European Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice for breaching waste water regulations. The court gave the UK five years to rectify the situation.
Since voting to leave the EU in 2016, the UK has brought in the Environment Act, which was approved last November – but not before an amendment to make reducing sewage discharges a legal requirement, and require water companies to take “all reasonable steps” to avoid using the overflows, was voted down by the government.
In 2020, just 17.2% of UK beaches were rated as “excellent quality” – the lowest in Europe. All Cyprus’ beaches made the grade, as did 97.1% of Greece’s.
Meanwhile the opposition Labour Party has blamed the current frontrunner to replace Boris Johnson, Liz Truss. A statement on Monday said that Truss cut the Environment Agency’s budget by £235 million, including £80 million on sewage monitors, as environment secretary in 2016.
Raw sewage dumping more than doubled in the five years following her “efficiency savings,” they claimed.
Water Minister Steve Double said in a statement via DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: “We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows. We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.”
He added that they were consulting on targets to improve water quality and vowed to publish a plan to tackle sewage overflows by September 1.
And with public outrage on the rise, the water companies are starting to change their tune.
“Storm overflows were originally designed to protect homes and businesses from flooding during heavy rainfall, but we recognize that they are no longer the right solution when sewers become overloaded with rainwater,” said a spokesperson from Anglian Water. The company is “reinvesting more than £200 million to reduce storm spills” and “promises that storm overflows will not be the reason for unhealthy rivers or seas… by 2030.”
Southern Water, which covers Brighton, says it is “investing £2bn between 2020 and 2025, with most investment going to improving our waste water assets and environmental performance” and plan to “significantly reduce storm overflows by 2030.”
Water UK, which represents the UK water industry, has said water firms “agree there is an urgent need” for action and are investing more than £3 billion to improve overflows between 2020 and 2025.
Only getting worse
For Rachel Wyatt of the Marine Conservation Society, the climate crisis is playing a part – which means the situation can only worsen.
“We’re seeing more extreme weather – a long drought, then intense rainfall [this month],” she says.
Tagholm agrees: “Currently [water companies’] business plans seem geared to coping only with overcast and slightly drizzly weather. Anything else seems to be ‘extreme’ in their eyes.”
Another change: in the past, the Brits were living in blissful ignorance.
“Storm overflows weren’t monitored until about six years ago,” says Wyatt. “It was because of pressure from campaign groups that water companies invested in monitoring.”
The Environment Agency worked with water companies to install monitors on 80% of England’s storm overflows by the end of 2020. All overflows will be monitored by the end of 2023 – a major improvement on 2016, when there were just 862 monitors in the whole of England. Yet Tagholm calls it “the tip of the pooberg.”
“We’re seeing [pollution] status in large amounts for the first time recently – before, we didn’t know how often they were spilling,” says Wyatt. In fact, before the Environment Act, monitoring sewage pollution was voluntary, not mandatory, for the water companies.
Visit Cornwall’s Malcolm Bell agrees that climate change is a factor.
“The number of occasions you get almost monsoon-style rain is increasing in frequency and volume so we have to make sure engineering is taking this into account,” he says, adding that sewage run-off needs to be considered while constructing more houses. Bell would like a particular focus on beach resorts such as Brighton, or Cornwall’s Newquay. “It’s critical [spills] don’t happen to a holiday resort with limited beaches,” he says.
A messy future
So what’s next? On August 26, the government announced the “Storm overflows discharge reduction plan,” setting targets to “improve” overflows discharging in and around bathing waters by 2035, as well as 75% of those discharging into “high priority nature sites.” All overflows, wherever sited, must be “improved” by 2050. Those “causing the most harm” will be prioritized.
The government says that sewage dumps should decrease by 80% by 2050.
They are mandating a £56 billion investment from the water companies to make the changes.
Although agreeing that “the headlines look good,” Tagholm isn’t overly impressed. “The water industry seems to have been given another 13, if not 28, years to pollute at will, meaning more than 33.8 million hours of untreated sewage could spew into rivers and coastlines over the coming few years alone,” he notes.
“The plan still needs to move quicker,” says Wyatt, who says it misses out 600 coastal overflows that aren’t near bathing waters. Companies need to “make more of an impact improving the really bad overflows,” she says – like those discharging into marine protected areas. She also wants screens put on overflows, to stop solids like tampons, condoms and wipes going straight into the UK’s rivers and beaches.
Yes, the UK. Because although the furore this summer has been about England, the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean, which spent a week cleaning beaches in September 2021, found 38 bits of sewage-related debris per 100 meters in Scotland – almost double that of England, which had 20 pieces, and quadruple that of Wales and Northern Ireland, which had 11 and 10 respectively. Around 30,000 wet wipes have been found on Scotland’s 300-feet Cramond Beach in the last five years alone.
Back in England, “The writing’s on the wall,” says Tagholm.
“People are flocking to beaches this weekend, and sadly, some of the beaches they’re going to have been affected in the last 24 hours.
“I want to see the rivers teeming with life, and the best bathing water in Europe, if not the world.
“The industry needs to get its house in order, and the government needs to intervene. How on earth private companies can get away with pumping raw sewage into rivers and the sea is beyond me.
“It’s vital we aren’t reclassified as ‘the dirty man of Europe.’”
As Whitty co-wrote in his summer report: “Nobody wants a child to ingest human faeces.”