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16 Billion Litres of Shit

I was disheartened, but not suprised, to read this in the Guardian today:

"Southern Water has been fined a record £90m for deliberately dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into protected seas over several years for its own financial gain.

Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, sentencing the privatised water company, said it had discharged between 16bn and 21bn litres of raw sewage into some of the most precious, delicate environments in the country."

You can read the rest of the article here if you'd like a nice, sombre read.

The article goes on to explain that this isn't the first time Southern Water has been involved in environmental pollution, nor it's second. This is the 169th time this company has been charged with an offense. In previous cases Southern Water received cautions, but after - I cannot stress this enough - one hundred and sixty nine offenses they've now received a fine.

Whilst this fine does represent a huge percentage of Southern Water's profits (in 2019 their operating profits hit £213 million, so a £90 million fine is quite a hefty chunk), I can't help but question why no individual is facing a prison sentence.

The article goes on:

"The prosecution followed the biggest ever investigation by the Environment Agency which uncovered 'very serious widespread criminality' by the company over a period of nearly six years, which was known about at the highest level. The utility is at the centre of a continuing criminal investigation into more recent spills...

The investigation of Southern Water uncovered the worst environmental crime in the 25-year history of the Environment Agency."

So in the entire history of the Environment Agency, this is the worst case of environmental harm they've found. And yet, no individuals are being held responsible. Certainly not being held responsible in the same was a drug dealer or a car thief is being held responsible.

But the repercussions of eco-crime on this scale are way more detrimental than that of a car thief, or a drug dealer.

When Southern Water decided to release sewage into the ocean 8,400 times (between 2010 and 2015), it hugely increased likelihood of sea life exposure pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and viruses (Hörman et al. 2004; Fong et al. 2005) which results in an increased likelihood of human exposure to these viruses and bacteria. As well as creating more risk of humans getting ill from this exposure, this also messes with the oceanic food chain a lot.

As one scholar notes:

"The importance of water for sustenance of life cannot be overemphasized. Whether it is in use of running water in our homes, rearing cattle and growing crops in our farms, or the increased uses in industry, remain immeasurable. It is important therefore, to note that depletion of this commodity either through contamination, or careless use results in serous consequences." (Owa, 2013)

If the above is true (which it is), then how is it possible that not one of the "highest level" executives were prosecuted? Forget conviction. No individuals were even charged with a crime.

I heard this phrase once, and I'm still trying to decide whether to cringe at it or not: Street crime vs suite crime. I want to wince - but the grim reality of how we treat criminals who have money, a degree, and a higher position in the social hierarchy compared to how we treat criminals from ethnic minorities or an undesirable postcode is just too poignant to cringe at.


Fong, T.T., Griffin, D.W. and Lipp, E.K. (2005) Molecular Assays for Targeting Human and Bovine Enteric Viruses in Coastal Waters and their Application for Library-Independent Source Tracking. Applied Environmental Microbiology. 71, pp. 2070–2078

Hörman, A., Rimhanen-Finne, R., Maunula, L., von Bonsdorff, C.H., Torvela, N., Heikinheimo, A. and Hänninen, M.L. (2004) Campylobacter spp., Giardia spp., Cryptosporidium spp., Noroviruses, and Indicator Organisms in Surface Water in Southwestern Finland, 2000–2001. Applied Environmental Microbiology. 70, pp. 87–95

Owa, F.D. (2013) Water Pollution: Sources, Effects, Control and Management. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 4(8), pp. 65-65

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