A campaign group is challenging what it says is an information blackout imposed by the Environment Agency on its investigation into suspected illegal sewage dumping in England.
The inquiry began after water companies admitted to the agency they may have been illegally discharging raw sewage from treatment works into rivers and streams.
The investigation involves more than 2,000 water treatment works, nearly a third of the total in Inglaterra, and is likely to involve most, if not all, water companies.
Fish Legal has asked the agency in an environmental information request for details of the treatment works being investigated, the time period the inquiry is examining and whether the inquiry would mean that the agency’s already delayed responses to pollution incidents would be delayed further.
But the agency has refused to release any details on the grounds that there would be adverse harm to its investigation, despite strong public interest in the case.
Penny Gane, the head of legal practice at Fish Legal, said it was trying to ensure a veil of secrecy was not kept over the operation and the impact of storm overflows by water companies.
Históricamente, EA investigations have taken years. Southern Water was fined £90m last year for dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into protected seas, after a seven-year investigation by the agency.
Gane said imposing a blackout on information relating to sewage discharges would hamper campaign groups and the public, who had brought to light the systemic abuse of the permit conditions under which sewage treatment works have to operate in the first place.
“The concern is that nothing is going to be shared now for years and people who have been looking at the harms caused by sewage discharges will be unable to continue their work because the agency is using a blanket application of the ‘course of justice’ exemptions under the environmental information regulations, which will continue for years,” Gane said.
In its response to Fish Legal, the agency said it could not disclose the information because it would have an adverse effect on their ability to investigate under exemption 12(5)(B).
The agency acknowledged “the factor of public interest” was strong and said it would seek to provide an update when appropriate that did not undermine the confidentiality of the investigatory process.
Fish Legal is challenging the refusal to release information and has requested the agency review their decision.
MPs on the environmental audit committee said in a report on Thursday they were alarmed at the extent of sewage discharges, large spills and misreporting by water companies. They also cited evidence from Prof Peter Hammond, who revealed that the scale of illegal sewage dumping from treatment plants could be far greater than the amount reported to the agency by water companies. Hammond’s information came from requests under the environmental information regulations to the EA and water firms.
“It is just this kind of information which we fear will now not be released,” Gane said.
The Environment Agency declined to comment.