The boss of Southern Water Ian McAulay faced a grilling from House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Philip Dunne MP, as part of today's final evidence session in the Water Quality in Rivers inquiry.
Trying to explain the backdrop against which the water company was handed a record £90 million fine for thousands of illegal discharges of sewage McAulay admitted that “there were some deliberate acts” carried out by a small number of peple who had a "strange, almost gaming type approach” to said discharges.
He also went on to add that this group had undue influence on other people "forcing" them to do things, "that they should not be doing", including concealing key papers from the board.
The as yet unamed employees are no longer with the company, it was yes to the question of whether heads rolled, but question marks remain as to whether they have secured employment elsewhere within the water sector.
McAulay took on the role of CEO in 2017, and the pollution incidences above were for the period from 2010 to 2015. McAulay, an environmental engineer, said he was as angry as anyone else over these "inexcusable behaviours", and that there had been a root and branch change in culture at Southern Water and that self-monitoring had moved from the lowest in the sector to the highest.
In addition, the company is running "pollution spotting courses", putting up "pollution spotting notices" and generally welcoming more reporting from the public, according to McAulay. Citizen scientists your watch isn't over yet.
Severn Trent CEO of Liv Garfield said that the forthcoming Stategic Priorities Statement from government to economic regulator Ofwat, should be ambitious and based on scientific outcomes. A sentiment echoed by the other water company heads present.
Meanwhile Thames Water CEO Sarah Bentley, who confessed that she has yet to take a dip into the Thames, circled around a question of whether Thames Water could guarantee that the company hadn't and wouldn't have a event on a similar scale to Southern Water.
The default position of the CEOs in attendance seemed to be: we are trying, and investing, we have a zero tolerance approach, but more needs to be done and other sources of pollution, including from agriculture, into our catchments are putting additional pressure on our systems. And when it comes to Event Duration Monitoring (EDM), it doesn't yet have full capacity to measure volume and water quality, but new technology is becoming available and is currently being trialled.
When asked how they feel about a 2030 zero pollution target, many chimed with the ambition but Bentley recognised that sector collaboration would be key to achieving it.
The next step following this session? The publication of the EAC Water Quality in Rivers report by the end of the year. We'll have to wait and see whether the evidence that the EAC has gathered leads to additional regulatory pressures for water companies.
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