UK faces legal action from Europe over sewage pipes

  • 27 May 2010
  • From the section UK
A Combined Sewer Overflow pipe
Image caption There are claims that pipes pump too much sewage into the sea

The European Commission is preparing to take the United Kingdom to the European Court of Justice, alleging it pumps too much sewage into the sea.

The case is expected to be filed within weeks and proceedings will centre on sewerage systems in London and Whitburn in north east England.

But the action is seen as a "test case" against the use of Combined Sewer Overflow pipes (CSOs) around the UK.

There are more than 20,000 pipes in the UK which pump raw sewage into the sea.

The CSOs are supposed to be used in emergencies only, when treatment plants are overwhelmed with storm water.

The idea is that - as a last resort - it is better to allow the sewage to flow into the sea, rather than have it backing up in our communities, even in our homes.

'Abused and misused'

But some of these pipes are being used dozens, even scores of times every year. And if you are in the water at the time that can be very bad news.

Surfers complain CSOs are making them ill and have been among the most vocal in calling foul.

Andy Cummins of Surfers Against Sewage said the pipes were being "abused and misused drastically".

"We know CSOs that are going 80, 100 times a year plus. Now this isn't under emergency conditions, this is used to discharge raw sewage instead of treating it."

The levels of pollution off our beaches are constantly monitored, with the Environment Agency insisting that massive investment has brought big improvements.

Warning system

It knows that the European Commission is accusing the UK of sending raw sewage into our seas "too frequently and in excessive quantities," but it defends the use of CSOs.

Bruce Newport of the Environment Agency said the pipes "may well be [used] dozens of times a year but they're only protecting the main sewage systems when you've got freak storms."

This is a huge problem, and the Environment Agency and the water companies say it would cost billions of pounds to phase out the CSOs.

Meanwhile, many beach-goers say that a warning system would be helpful - to tell people if there is sewage in the sea before they get into the water.

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