Thames Water’s £20m fine hints at tougher regime

The UK’s largest water company, which Macquarie divested earlier this month, has been ordered to pay a record sum after dumping 1.4bn litres of raw sewage in the Thames.

Thames Water has been fined £20.3 million ($25.6 million; €23.5 million) after massive leaks of untreated sewage into the River Thames and tributaries.

The UK’s largest water company has recognised dumping 1.4 billion litres of raw effluent at six sites over the period 2013-2014, making people and animals ill, killing fish and damaging farmers’ businesses. The Environmental Agency, which brought the prosecution, noted that at one site up to 32 million litres of sewage flowed into the river each day.

It said the pattern of pollution incidents was “unprecedented”, which had led Judge Sheridan to hand a “record-breaking fine for record-breaking offending”. “He asks that the fines must be met by Thames Water, and not be passed onto customers; it was the company, not the customers, who broke the law,” the EA noted.

The sentence marks a steep step up from Thames Water’s previous fine for pollution, which had already set a record in January 2016 by reaching £1 million. It comes after sentencing guidelines were changed in 2014 to address criticism that previous fines were too low to deter wrongdoing.

“This case sends a clear signal to the industry that safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how all companies must now operate,” observed James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency.

Steve Robertson, Thames Water chief executive, said the company “had learned from these serious events” and made “a number of key changes” after reviewing “the way we do things”. These included increasing staff in “key operational roles” and investing around £20 million a week on “on continually improving our service to our customers and the environment”.

The news comes less than two weeks after Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, previously the largest shareholder in the business, sold its 26.3 percent stake to Borealis Infrastructure and Wren House Infrastructure Management for between £1.3 billion and £1.4 billion.

Thames Water made an operating profit of £742.2 million in 2015/2016 and paid £82.4 million in dividends. The company says it has reduced pollution incidents by 49 percent over the period.