THAMES Water has been told that a series of pollution spills from the Little Marlow Sewage Treatment Works are unacceptable - with legal action not ruled out as an Environment Agency probe gets underway.

The site is now being manned 24 hours a day after the water firm admitted last week there had been technical problems at the Little Marlow plant which led to pools of sewage collecting on the Bourne End banks of the Thames.

As well as the sewage found in the river this month, a faulty pipe in Little Marlow green belt was also leaking treated sewage in February.

Villagers have been reporting pollution and sewage related incidents going back to the latter part of 2012, including fish and birds found dead at a stream in the Little Marlow green belt.

EA spokesman Dave Ferguson said: "We want to reassure people that we are investigating a series of events at Little Marlow STW with a view to taking appropriate further enforcement action.

"Whilst our investigations are ongoing, we are working with Thames Water to ensure they are taking every action to prevent a recurrence to protect the environment; we have made it very clear that what has happened isn’t acceptable and we have serious concerns.

EA spokesman Dave Ferguson said: "Working with Thames Water doesn’t mean we are not taking concerns about the site seriously. We have successfully prosecuted Thames Water for sewage pollution of a number of occasions over recent years, with judges imposing significant fines.

"Our investigation is thorough and it is not appropriate for us to comment on any likely enforcement response because this could compromise the options available to us. Our final enforcement response will be in line with our Enforcement and Sanctions guidance. "Should Thames Water be prosecuted and found guilty of a criminal offence in court, the judge may impose a fine. We do not have the legal authority to directly fine water companies but we do routinely re-charge our incident response costs where the polluter is identified."

Thames Water has no previous convictions from the EA regarding Little Marlow STW.

The EA has been collecting evidence of the impact any pollution has had on the environment to see if its strict controls laid down in a permit on sewage discharge have been broken. The EA advises regulator OFWAT of the firm's performance and they can decide if the company should be allowed to make a profit, or increase costs to customers, based on their environmental performance.

Wycombe District Council’s Environmental Health team and Thames Valley Public Health England Centre are also involved.

Thames Water spokesman Natalie Slater said: "Any pollution incident is deeply regrettable and so for this to have happened repeatedly from Little Marlow sewage works is something that we must put right.

"The site is now being managed around the clock on a back-up system while we get the faulty equipment replaced. This is working well and there have been no further pollutions since last week.

"We fully understand the concerns of local residents and are committed to making this site more resilient. We have also been speaking to the local river users to make sure we alert them to any pollutions that may affect them in future.

"Our specialists are still on-site ensuring there are no more failures and we have done a thorough clean-up of the river. We continue to work with the Environment Agency to monitor the situation and investigate exactly how this happened."

Call Thames Water on 0845 9200 800 or Environment Agency Hotline on 0800 807060 to report sewage spills.

Environment Agency action against Thames Water

  • Feb 2013 Thames Water ordered to pay over £14,000 for polluting Faringdon Stream in Faringdon, Oxfordshire in August 2011.
  • October 2012 Thames Water Utilities ordered to pay over £13,000 for sewage pollution in Hampshire
  • December 2011 Thames Water ordered to pay over £24,000 for sewage spill in East Hampshire which killed hundreds of fish.
  • March 2011 Thames Water ordered to pay £345,000 after serious sewage spill after allowing thousands of litres of raw sewage to discharge into gardens, allotments, homes and streams over a ten-week period.

What action is taking place?

- A recovery action plan is in place, with twice daily updates given on progress.

- The company is obliged to clean up pollution and make good any damage.

-The site is now manned 24/7 until there is confidence that the process is back under control.

-Tanker sent to suck sewage foam from the river.

-Temporary pumps 24/7 to provide back up to the process and to empty the storm tanks. These will be on site until all existing pumps of concern have been checked and serviced.

-Repairing, refurbishing and replacing machinery on site.

- Emptying storms with tankers pumping 24/7 to get extra storage capacity back.

- Litter picking to clear up debris from trees and banks.

-Repairing the broken final effluent discharge pipe in Little Marlow. The EA said Thames Water will, with the consent of the landowner, repair this leak and ensure that best practice is used to limit the possibility of further pollution during remediation.