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Defra forms taskforce to reduce sewage discharge into rivers and seas

Urgent new measures are being taken to address the scale of untreated sewage leaks into rivers and seas as pressure grows on the water industry and government to act.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a taskforce to cut the frequency of sewage discharges into rivers and seas from storm overflows, following revelations in the Guardian that water companies released raw sewage into rivers more than 200,000 times last year.

The Environment Agency issues permits to allow water companies to release untreated human waste – which includes excrement, condoms and toilet paper – from storm overflows after extreme weather events, such as torrential rain, to stop water backing up and flooding homes.

But the Guardian data suggests the discharges have become a routine part of water and sewerage management, and critics say it has become a licence for water companies to pollute.

On Wednesday, Defra said it had set up a taskforce with the Environment Agency, Water UK, which represents the water industry, and Ofwat, to “reduce the frequency and volumes of sewage discharges from storm overflows.”.

Defra said the chief executives of 15 water companies met environment minister Rebecca Pow on Wednesday and she called on them to take further action to protect the environment, improve leakage levels and safeguard water supplies.

Campaigners say the sewage releases into rivers are particularly damaging to chalk streams, which are a haven for wildlife.

Defra said Pow told the water industry CEOs stronger action was needed to deliver on environmental priorities around the use of storm overflows, chalk streams and leakage, and that the environment minister was setting up a chalk stream summit next month.

Pow said: “We discussed a number of issues I feel strongly about, including storm overflows, and how we can work together to see much more ambitious improvements.

“This country’s green recovery from coronavirus can only happen if water companies step up and play their part.”

The Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee, Philip Dunne, is also pursuing a campaign to change the law to forbid water companies from discharging raw sewage into waterways.

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