Permitted discharges in the River Lambourn – June 2021

Much has been written in the last couple of years, here and elsewhere, about the problems of the sewage in the Lambourn Valley. This is the kind of thing, like meningitis or income tax, that most of us think about as little as possible until it happens to us, when we can think about little else. In the Valley, and in other places with groundwater, the problem is also seasonal, vanishing for perhaps eight months of the year before returning when the water table starts to rise. At the moment, levels are low, so it’s slightly off most people’s radar. Not off ours, however; and certainly not off Martyn Wright’s…

There are two main issues at work. The first is the state of the antiquated sewerage network, with cracks allowing groundwater to leech in and overload the system. Thames Water has been taking steps to remedy this, most recently in May 2021 when it relined pipes in Front Street in East Garston. See here for a video in which we interviewed a TW spokesperson and two local councillors; and here for a post published in December 2020 which outlined the measure which TW had taken already and was planning to take in the future. Time will tell how successful these prove to be.

The second issue, which is a direct consequence of the first, is the extent to which foul water is discharged into local waterways such as the SSSI-protected River Lambourn. This is part of a national problem under which the Environment Agency permits such discharges in emergencies. The accusation is that the definition of “emergency” has been stretched over time so that it now forms almost a day-to-day part of the water-management process. A private member’s bill to demand tougher controls was put for parliament in January 2021 but withdrawn when the government said it agreed with the proposals which would be incorporated into forthcoming legislation. Time will also tell when this happens and how effective the provisions are.

Until then – and perhaps thereafter if the bill lacks teeth – the situation remains unchanged. This is essentially (a) that all agree permitted discharges are a bad thing; (b) that this immediately and understandably changes when the alternative is sewage coming up in your house; and (c) that water companies have less incentive to fix the source of the problem if they have an easily available solution to fall back on which is cheaper than tankering the excess away and a lot cheaper than fixing the pipes. How much this is addressed depends on how willing the government is for several million people to be living in a state of war with its sewage system and how serious it is about protecting its SSSI waterways, of which the Lambourn is an almost unique example.

I must declare an interest here as the Lambourn flows through our garden. It also flows through the garden of the above-mentioned Martyn Wright about 100 metres downstream. Martyn set up the East Garston Flood Forum in 2020 and has since been actively involved in campaigning on both these related issues in conjunction with the Lambourn Valley Flood Forum, Action for the River Kennet (ARK) and other groups. Earlier this month, he wrote a letter to the Newbury Weekly News on the subject. This week, he has written another one, which he also sent to Penny Post. The NWN’s letters section is large but not infinitely expandable:so,  just in case it misses the cut, we’ve published it in full below. We’ve also added a comment from ARK and from Thames Water.

• Letter from Martyn Wright of the East Garston Flood Forum.

“Last week, you published my letter about the discharge by Thames Water (TW) of untreated sewage into the River Lambourn. You wrote an article on the subject with a photograph of the discharge at East Garston.

“Quite understandably, you gave TW the opportunity to respond. However, I believe this response is somewhat disingenuous. It seems they have used the well-practiced public relations tactic when asked a difficult question, they give a plausible and convincing answer to a different one.

“The untreated sewage discharge referred to is from the East Garston sewage pumping station. TW responded by describing how the sewage is treated by the ATAC Bio Filtration plant installed at Lambourn, four miles upstream. It was good news when TW installed that unit in Lambourn as I understand it does remove an amount of the damaging chemicals the effluent contains.

“That is precisely why in 2020 I requested that a similar filtration unit be deployed at East Garston. TW’s reasons for rejecting the request ranged from not being sure they could obtain permission, to not finding a suitable location, to being confident that tankers would cope with the excess sewage anyway. Never once did they say that it was unnecessary as the discharge was clean. Tankers were not used this spring as the discharge into the river, as shown in the photograph on the NWN article, was pumping out for about 15 seconds every 70 seconds at the peak period in February. Thankfully now that levels have dropped in the sewer, the discharge has stopped for now.

“This is a regular event in winter and spring months. I do not know the volume, but to give some idea, in 2020 the East Garston Pumping Station discharged into the river for about 214 hours.

“In its response, TW said that no unfiltered sewage enters the river, but then wen on to talk about the Lambourn filter. This gave the impression that all discharges are treated in the same way. This is misleading. It depends how you define “unfiltered”. My understanding is that the only filtering done at EG pumping station is that the effluent passes through a screen to remove such things as solid excrement, sanitary products and flushable wipes that don’t disintegrate. After lying in a settling tank, all the liquefied excrement, urine, and worst of all, the damaging domestic chemicals, are discharged into the river when a certain level is reached.

“TW claims that it had the river water tested and found no evidence of harmful chemicals. Where was the testing done? I suggest it was done below the Lambourn filter unit, not below the EG discharge pipe.

“I may be wrong in my understanding. Maybe the effluent from EG pumping station is as clean as that from the Lambourn filtration unit. I have emailed six different contacts at TW and at the Environment Agency, for clarification of exactly how that EG sewage discharge is treated. It’s a very simple question but as yet I have not been given any answers.

• Charlotte Hitchmough from Action for the River Kennet added the following comment:

“The EDM data only picks up the storm discharges from sewage treatment works with event duration monitors fitted – the overpumping that happened at East Garston won’t be included in these figures and nor will be effluent from the ATAC units. I understand thais this isn’t the exact issue you are highlighting but it shows that the scale of the discharges is enormous.

“You asked whether this was happening elsewhere – this year Lambourn and Aldbourne more badly hit than I can remember. There was some overflow at West Overton Pumping Station, mainly dealt with by tankers, in addition to the recorded overflows at various sewage treatment works (including at Fyfield and Marlborough). West Overton Parish Council also asked for an ATAC unit but was also told that tankers would deal with the overflows.”

• A spokesperson from Thames Water added the following comment:

“During or following rainfall, we are permitted to discharge excess storm water from pumping stations and treatment sites to a watercourse, pre-agreed with the Environment Agency, to stop the sewer system backing up into homes and businesses. It’s not something we want to do and even though the process is legally permitted we want to get to a point where the discharges aren’t necessary. The work we’ve done to keep groundwater out of the network in the Lambourn Valley will go a long way towards this.

“The water quality testing of the River Lambourn was carried out by independent scientists as various points along the river, including East Garston, and showed no traces of ammonia, which is the most harmful compound in sewage, and little to no impact on the PH level. This will be because in any discharges the sewage is heavily diluted by large volumes of rainwater and groundwater. In additional to all the work we’ve already done, we’re currently exploring if we can do any additional work in the area before the autumn to further reduce discharges and flooding.”

• See my only slightly facetious analogy of the various foul-water-management issues in this area by clicking here.

The photo at the top of the post shows foul water being discharged into the Lambourn from the sewage pumping station on the eastern (downstream) edge of East Garston in January 2021.

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