The Environment Agency has dramatically reduced the frequency that it attends water pollution incidents amid the Covid-19 pandemic, raising concerns that the crisis is allowing companies to break environmental regulations with impunity.
Between the start of April and the end of August this year the Environment Agency attended just 292 water pollution incidents, down from 1,726 during the same period in 2019, according to data obtained by the Guardian using freedom of information legislation.
While the number of water pollution incidents attended by the Environment Agency declined by 83%, the number of reports of pollution incidents remained high.
The agency was given 9,144 reports of pollution incidents during the time period. This is just 3% less than the 9,424 it received during the same period in 2019.
As well as dramatically reducing attendance to incidents, the Environment Agency also cut the number of water quality tests that it carried out.
Water quality testing on coastal waters and lakes in England was halted in May, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only resumed in July.
The lack of Environment Agency activity during the pandemic means it will be hard to gauge exactly how much polluting has been carried out over 2020, according to environmental campaign groups.
Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “We are very concerned by the reduced activity by the Environment Agency at this crucial time for the environment.
“Reduced response to incidents means that polluters are less likely to be held accountable, and reduced testing means that we may not know the full extent of the effects that pollution has had on the health of our favourite swimming spots.”
As well as lowering its response rate to reported water pollution incidents, the Environment Agency also dramatically reduced its response to other environmental issues.
Figures obtained by the Guardian show that these included mass fish die-offs, illegal waste dumping, land contamination, illegal fishing, and reports concerning invasive species.
In a statement published on 2 June the Environment Agency stated: “We remain fully operational, with the majority of our staff working from home.
“Our remaining frontline teams will be active, where necessary, on the ground tackling priority issues such as flood risk and pollution.”
In another post on 2 October the Environment Agency’s chief executive, James Bevan, said that the Environment Agency was: “Responding to environmental incidents (one every 45 minutes) to stop and reverse damage to our rivers.”
But some people have said these statements were misleading.
“The Environment Agency is creating the impression that its response to environmental incidents has remained effective over 2020 – but this just isn’t the case,” said one expert that asked to remain anonymous as he works closely with the Environment Agency.
“The Environment Agency was paralysed by the pandemic. A lot of their staff were sent home with very little notice, and the agency didn’t have the network capacity to deal with basic issues. Many employees couldn’t even connect to their emails.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency has continued to work to tackle illegal and environmentally damaging operations throughout the pandemic – taking proportionate enforcement action to bring businesses back into compliance and to prevent and disrupt criminal activity.
“During the pandemic we continued to respond to every incident reported to us – balancing attending the most serious incidents with protecting our staff by giving advice remotely where possible.
“All incidents are taken extremely seriously and we will always seek to hold to account those responsible for environmental harm.”
The Environment Agency says many environmental incidents are currently being responded to by “liaising with operators and incident reporters without the need to attend a site”.
Commenting on the problems regarding infrastructure for staff working from home, the spokesperson added: “We have stepped up our IT capacity to enable as many colleagues as possible to work from home and have delivered IT equipment to those who need it.”
Currently only 14% of the UK’s watercourses are in good ecological health, according to Environment Agency data.
Sewage wastewater discharges by water companies into rivers account for damage to 36% of waterways, and run-off from agricultural industries is responsible for 40% of damage to waterways, according to the Environment Agency.
Guardian data revealed recently that water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers on more than 200,000 occasions last year.
In response to the growing outcry over sewage releases into rivers, the government and the Environment Agency has set up a storm overflow task force, but critics say the Environment Agency has been hamstrung by huge cuts to its budget and a reduction in its water monitoring regime.
Greenpeace revealed last year that the number of agency water quality sampling and sampling points had fallen by nearly 50% since 2013.
Tom Stuart, UK landscapes manager at WWF, said: “Without the Environment Agency having a credible enforcement presence there is less incentive for stakeholders to take measures that reduce pollution.
“The agency needs to be able to commit to taking effective action to restore river health both during and after the pandemic. Our most precious, and best protected, freshwater and coastal habitats and species from seagrass to bitterns depend on it.”