England’s rivers are paying the price for the hollowed-out Environment Agency

For Railway Angling Club members who fish the Trent where it flows past East Midlands Airport on the outskirts of Derby, it was a decades-long losing battle to keep the growing freight hub from polluting their river.

The airport has statutory approval from the UK Environment Agency to discharge effluent with de-icing fluid between November and April each year. But if the wastewater isn’t diluted enough, it can suck oxygen out of the river water, leading to suffocating plumes of what’s known as “clarifier fungus.”

According to the permit, updated in 2018, the discharges should not have a “significant negative visual impact” on the river. But the fungus has returned every year since, members of the fishing club report, temporarily choking a 170-metre stretch of riverbank where fish such as bullhead and wolffish come to feed and spawn.

The pollution incidents are known to the Environment Agency. The regulator issued a written warning to the airport in 2019, checked a mushroom plume in 2020 and is currently investigating another suspected breach in 2021; For the fishing club, however, the warnings are nothing more than bureaucratic slaps in the face.

“The problem is that any violation of the permit is met with just a warning letter,” said Gary Cyster, a retired Environment Agency fisheries inspector who fishes with the Railway Angling Club and has closely monitored the airport’s activities since 2010.

Gary Cyster reveals evidence of

Gary Cyster reveals evidence of ‘sewage fungus’ in the Trent © Charlie Bibby/FT

Environmental and fisheries groups say the travails of Derby anglers point to a deep malaise in Britain’s river monitoring system, caused by a decade of underfunding by the agency and a dysfunctional system of ‘self-monitoring’.

Charles Watson, founder of charity and campaign group River Action UK, said cutting the Environment Agency’s budget by two-thirds since 2010 has effectively “defunded” environmental protection in the UK.

“If you want to pollute a river, you can pretty much do it knowing no one will catch you; If you are reported, no one will pursue you, and if they do, you will not be prosecuted,” he said.

A devastating report The study, released in January by Parliament’s Environment Review Committee, found that just 14 per cent of England’s rivers were classified as ‘good’ and not a single body of water achieved ‘good’ status for chemical pollution.

Wildlife and Countryside Link, an umbrella organization of environmental groups including the Angling Trust and bird conservation group RSPB, told the committee that the quality of England’s rivers was “the worst in Europe” and progress on tackling pollution was “extremely poor”. .

Gary Cyster takes water samples from a surface drainage pipe that runs from the airport into the Trent
Gary Cyster taking water samples from a surface drain pipe leading into the Trent from the airport © Charlie Bibby/FT

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, acknowledged that water quality in English rivers “flattened out” after decades of post-war improvements.

Although the decline in water quality has been ongoing for at least a decade, the issue has surged onto the political agenda following a series of high-profile sewage pollution cases and pressure from river user groups such as anglers and wild swimmers.

The Environment Bill 2021 gave ministers the power to set tough new targets to reduce wastewater pollution and halt species decline across the UK, but advocacy groups say the targets will be missed unless funding from the Environment Agency is restored and a stricter approach to sanctioning polluters.

The grants for the agency’s environmental work will make a “big difference” by about two-thirds of 120 million.

Line chart of £m per financial year beginning 2010-11 showing that environmental protection grant-in-aid funding, including enforcement, has fallen sharply

Equally important, according to stakeholders, is the reform of the operator self-monitoring system introduced in 2009, which has reduced prosecutions of polluters by 97 percent over the past decade.

Instead, violations of permits are usually resolved through an agreement between the environmental agency and the polluter to repair any damage and correct any deficiencies in the system that led to the violation in the first place.

But groups such as the Derby Railway Angling Club say their experience suggests the system of self-monitoring allows polluters in practice to breach their legal obligations with virtual impunity.

At the point where East Midlands Airport joins the Trent at Castle Donington, there are at least seven species of fish protected under the European Habitats Directive and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, including endangered eels.

Line chart of prosecutions per financial year beginning 2000-1 shows the number of prosecutions of companies and other organizations by the Environment Agency in England has fallen dramatically

The club discovered in October this year that the airport had failed to collect key data on its discharges for the months of January and February – in what the Environment Agency has said is another possible violation of the permit.

In a letter to the club, the agency said “the appropriate enforcement action” would be taken, but Cyster was skeptical.

The airport’s failure to collect the data followed another permit breach in March 2020, after a contractor excavated gravel from the riverbank during the “closed” fishing season despite being specifically told it was prohibited.

In a September 2021 letter to the fishing club, the airport acknowledged the incident was “regrettable and embarrassing” but stressed it was a “good neighbor” and would step up its efforts to monitor the risk of sewage fungus cloud in Trento.

“We will make sure of that this winter [2022] We are focused on the quality and consistency of the data we collect and present in accordance with the environmental permit,” the airport wrote. When he failed to do so three months later, he blamed a computer error.

“You’ll forgive them a day or maybe a few days of missing data, but not a whole month of data. What on earth was the Environment Agency doing? You should have been there,” Cyster said.

Required data not provided by East Midlands Airport for the February 2022 water quality report

Required data not provided by East Midlands Airport for February 2022 water quality report © Charlie Bibby/FT

East Midlands Airport said it was cooperating with the Environment Agency’s investigations into a “series of incidents involving unplanned discharges of surface water from the airport site”, adding that it took its environmental responsibilities “seriously”.

“In parallel, the airport is implementing a surface water improvement plan that includes short-, medium- and long-term measures to prevent further unplanned discharges,” the airport said.

The Environment Agency confirmed it is investigating the discharge of waste from East Midlands Airport into the Trent. “While we are legally unable to comment further at this time, we take all reports of pollution seriously. If violations of the permit are found, we will take appropriate enforcement action,” it said.

Cyster acknowledged the agency has to balance the interests of anglers – and the environment – with those of the fast-growing East Midlands Airport, which will be declared a free port in 2021 and whose key customers include parcel service DHL and Royal Mail. Cargo volume has grown by almost a quarter since 2019.

Noting that the 2015 Deregulation Act requires regulators to take economic growth into account, he said he was “quite clear” that the river’s annual pollution would be tolerated in order to generate growth.

A plane lands at East Midlands Airport
A plane lands at East Midlands Airport which is rapidly growing as a freight hub © Jon Hobley/MI News/Alamy

According to minutes of meetings with the agency, the airport has said treating the waste before it is discharged “is not a viable business option”, but Cyster argued data showed other airports such as Manchester and London Heathrow are less polluting.

Trento’s pollution comes at a price, he said. “Ten years ago I often caught big pike there. I haven’t caught any in the last four.”

https://www.ft.com/content/396cdde1-d9f6-4f84-83a8-bf23aa59e391 England’s rivers are paying the price for the hollowed-out Environment Agency

Adam Bradshaw

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