Undated handout photo issued by the Environment Agency of sewage foam collecting around boats at Bourne End Marina. Thames Water has been fined £20.3 million - the largest penalty handed down to a water utility for an environmental disaster - for polluting the River Thames with 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday March 22, 2017. See PA story COURTS Thames. Photo credit should read: Environment Agency/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Sewage foam collects around boats at Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, after the spill © PA

Thames Water has been fined a record £20.3m after it admitted to dumping 1.4bn litres of raw sewage into the river Thames.

Britain’s biggest water company allowed huge amounts of untreated effluent to enter the river at six sites in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 2013-14. At one site, prosecutors at the Environment Agency said, up to 32m litres of waste flowed into the Thames each day, leaving people and animals ill and killing thousands of fish.

The fine is 10 times larger than the previous record of £2m, which was paid in December 2016 by Southern Water for flooding beaches in Kent with raw sewage, leaving them closed to the public for nine days.

Announcing the penalty at Aylesbury Crown Court on Wednesday, Judge Francis Sheridan called the Thames Water incident “a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs”, adding: “It should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions.” Thames Water has 21 days to pay.

Fish and birds died after tampons, condoms and sanitary towels were left floating in the river. A nine-year-old boy, who had sailing lessons on the river, was struck down with a severe stomach bug, while a fisherman went out of business because the pollution killed his crayfish.

Steve Robertson, chief executive of Thames Water, said it “deeply regretted” the incidents and that pollution at Thames Water sites had halved since 2013. “Our performance in this part of our region, at that time, was not up to the very high standards that we and our customers expect,” he said.

“Since then we’ve reviewed how we do things at all levels and made a number of key changes. These have included increasing the numbers of staff in key operational roles and investing heavily to improve reliability.”

Financial penalties against water companies have increased after a change in sentencing guidelines for environmental offences in 2014.

Thames Water last year became the first water company to receive a £1m fine under the new regime when it was penalised for repeated sewage leaks into the Grand Union canal. This was soon followed by Yorkshire Water, which was also fined £1.1m for illegally discharging sewage that polluted the river Ouse near York.

Also last year, the cross-party public accounts committee of MPs criticised Ofwat, the water regulator for England and Wales, for failing to protect consumer interests and allowing Britain’s 18 water companies to retain excess profits rather than passing on savings to customers. Water companies have been frequently criticised for making billions of pounds in profits and awarding large shareholder dividends while paying little or no corporation tax.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore. It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield, Berkshire, in September 2013.

The judge also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

Sir Tony Redmond, London and south-east chair for the Consumer Council for Water, said: “These were extremely serious failings which came at a great cost to the natural environment. Substantial fines can be an effective deterrent because they hit shareholders, not customers, in the pocket.

“Thames Water says it has learned lessons but we’ll be watching closely to make sure those claims are reflected in its future performance.”

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said: “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”.

Thames Water serves about 15m customers in London and the Thames Valley region. Macquarie, the Australian infrastructure bank that owned the biggest stake in the company at the time of the sewage dump, sold its last remaining stake in Thames Water for an estimated £1.3bn to the Canadian pension fund Omers and the Kuwait Investment Authority earlier this month.

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