Water companies operating in England were responsible for the worst levels of environmental pollution in five years in 2019, leading to condemnation from ministers and the Environment Agency.
In its annual assessment of the nine privatised water and sewerage companies, Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the EA, said their performance continued to be unacceptable.
More investment was needed by several of the companies who were failing to protect the environment, she said.
The number of pollution incidents by water companies was the highest since 2014, the report said. It singled out Southern Water, which had more than double the number of pollution incidents reported compared with 2018.
There were 2,204 “pollution incidents” from water companies last year, compared with 1,863 in 2018 – marking the worst environmental pollution from the water industry for six years. Southern Water’s number nearly doubled, reaching 458 incidents.
There were 48 serious pollution incidents from sewerage facilities – more than half of which were from Anglian and Thames Water.
The damning assessment of the way water companies treat the environment comes after the shocking state of rivers in England was revealed last month. No river in England was found to be in a good overall state, amid concerns over the scale of sewage discharges and agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, and Howard Boyd are summoning a meeting with the worst performing firms – South West Water, Anglian, Northumbrian and Southern – to demand they “step up” and do better.
Howard Boyd said: “I will be meeting water company chairs in the coming weeks to make it clear that we expect much more. This includes developing, publishing and implementing specific plans by the end of this year to reduce pollution incidents. We will closely follow the delivery of these plans and will apply tough regulation to ensure companies stick by them.”
Four out of the nine water companies were rated as poor or requiring improvement in the annual assessment by the EA.
Southern Water became the first company to be given a one-star (poor) rating since 2015.
The firm was fined a record £126m last year over “shocking” failures at sewage treatment sites that polluted rivers and beaches in southern England.
The environment secretary said: “Water companies have a responsibility to act as custodians of the environment and this report for 2019 shows that some are failing to take their obligations seriously. That is not good enough.
“Certain water companies must step up and do better, which is why I will be meeting those who are falling short of our expectations to discuss how we can work together to drive better performance.”
The government has set up a storm overflow taskforce to tackle the problem of raw sewage being released by water companies into rivers. The Guardian revealed that in 2019 water companies discharged raw sewage from storm overflows more than 200,000 times in 2019.
The releases, which are permitted by the EA, are supposed to take place only after extreme weather events.
At the same time, analysis of the finances of the water companies showed they had paid out £57bn in dividends since they were privatised 30 years ago.