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The River Lea and its tributaries need sewer spill alerts

The River Lea starts near Luton and flows east and south into London, becoming its second largest river, before joining the Thames. It has several tributaries along its course, including globally rare chalk streams. To know the true health of this river system we need Thames Water to tell the public in real-time, online, when its sewers overflow. The water company has monitors on its outfalls but it is refusing to comply with the Environmental Information Regulations. People need live updates, not data that’s up to 3 weeks old. By sending our legally-binding email to Thames Water you will demonstrate their position is a nonsense.

The Lea and its tributaries

Dear Thames Water,

Under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 , for the River Lea (Lee) and all of its tributaries between Luton and Canning Town, please tell me

  1. How often have your Combined Sewer Overflows and Sewage Works discharged under storm conditions between 30th November and the 20th of December 2020?
  2. The duration of these storm overflows?
  3. The location of these assets?
    Electronic communication is fine.

Please note -
In a response to London Waterkeeper on the 14th August 2020 you stated that 97.8% of your assets with the potential to discharge to the environment had been fitted with Event Duration Monitors and the remainder will have them by the end of 2020. On the 31st March this year you refused London Waterkeeper's request that you issue real-time notifications, contrary to Regulation 4 of the Environmental Information Regulations. London Waterkeeper has started legal action to have the law enforced.
One reason you cited for not publishing the data from your monitors, in real-time, was the lack of an online platform. This is not an excuse permitted by the Regulations.

I want Thames Water to issue notifications in real-time, online so I know when your Combined Sewer Overflows and Sewage Treatment Works are discharging to rivers. This information would help people reduce the risk of coming into contact with untreated sewage.

The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 state
"Dissemination of environmental information
4. A public authority shall in respect of environmental information that it holds
(a) progressively make the information available to the public by electronic means which are easily accessible; and
(b) take reasonable steps to organize the information relevant to its functions with a view to the active and systematic dissemination to the public of the information."

Please note the Regulations where they say
2.(1) In these Regulations
environmental information has the same meaning as in Article 2(1) of the Directive, namely any information in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form on
(a) the state of the elements of the environment, such as water
(b) factors, such as emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment referred to in (a);
f) the state of human health and safety inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment referred to in (a) or, through those elements, by any of the matters referred to in (b)

You have refused to issue comprehensive overflow alerts. You have ignored Regulation 4 and instead only tell people if they ask and this takes up to 3 weeks. This is not active and systematic. Sewer overflow information must be published in real-time. This will allow people to protect their health, as intended by the Regulations.

Due to your refusal to publish this information online and in real-time the only way to determine when sewers have overflowed is to request this information every week. However, to be told a sewer has spilled up to three weeks after it happened does not furnish the public with the information they need to avoid coming into contact with sewage. Until you agree to meet the legal requirement set out in Regulation 4 re active dissemination of environmental information I will ask you for regular updates on sewer overflows. This will only stop when this information is published online and in real-time.

I know that you send email updates for Modgen Sewage Works and Hammersmith Pumping Station when they overflow. While this is not truly systematic dissemination it shows you already issue some notifications, the precedent has been set. I want to see overflow alerts for all of your monitored assets ACTIVELY displayed.

Yours faithfully,

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The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 state Thames Water has a duty to publish “Any information in electronic form on the state of water and discharges into the environment, affecting or likely to affect water. This covers information on human health as it may be affected by the state of water as a result of discharges into it.

The information should be available “ by electronic means which are easily accessible” and “organise the information with a view to the active and systematic dissemination to the public of the information.”

We want information about sewer overflows into rivers online in real-time. We asked Thames Water and they told us 97% of their sewer outfalls now have Event Duration Monitors on them. Currently Thames Water only tells people if they ask, and it takes up to 3 weeks. We need to know when sewer spills are happening so people’s health isn’t put at risk and we know their true impact on the environment. Thames Water refused.

We complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office about Thames Water and started the legal process. We will take our case all the way to Judicial Review if we have to.

By sending the information request you will show Thames Water that you want them to tell the public if a sewer has spilled. There are lots of public parks across London where people paddle in rivers that are downstream of Combined Sewer Overflows. They are never told if they are playing in sewage.

We will change the dates on the Information Request each week. We aim to demonstrate that it will be much easier for Thames Water to put the information online, in real-time instead of responding to thousands of requests. The intent of the law is clear; it is meant to provide people with information about the state of the environment and human health. Being told about sewer overflows three weeks after you have been in a river is no use.

As Thames Water begins to be overwhelmed (we estimate this will take at least 900 Information Requests) it might refuse to send you the information. It may claim your request is “vexatious”. It may say you have to pay for the time its staff would have to spend finding the information. We think they would be breaking the law if they do this. Because you will have your own legally binding request with Thames Water you will be able to escalate your case by complaining so they have to carry out an internal review. None of this will have a financial cost. This may be more complicated than a simple petition but it is also more powerful. You will be using the law to hold the authorities to account. This principle of access to information is enshrined in the Aarhus Convention, and the UK is a signatory. As such the UK is –

“Recognizing that adequate protection of the environment is essential to human well-being and the enjoyment of basic human rights, including the right to life itself,
Recognizing also that every person has the right to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, and the duty, both individually and in association with others, to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations,
Considering that, to be able to assert this right and observe this duty, citizens must have access to information, be entitled to participate in decision-making and have access to justice in environmental matters, and acknowledging in this regard that citizens may need assistance in order to exercise their rights,
Recognizing that, in the field of the environment, improved access to information and public participation in decision-making enhance the quality and the implementation of decisions, contribute to public awareness of environmental issues, give the public the opportunity to express its concerns and enable public authorities to take due account of such concerns”


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