NORTHUMBRIAN Water (NWL) has been fined more than half a million pounds after sewage effluent polluted a rural watercourse.

The regional water company, which was due to stand trial this week in the prosecution by the Environment Agency, received the hefty fine at Durham Crown Court after changing plea and admitting causing or knowingly permitting a water discharge activity, on May 22, 2017.

It followed the discovery of raw untreated sewage flowing from a burst manhole cover in Heads Hope Burn, into a nearby stream, between Hutton Henry and Castle Eden, in east Durham.

NWL’s own engineers made the discovery as they were aware of problems caused by blockages of a combined sewer in the rural location due to tree root damage, and were at the scene preparing for amelioration work.

The pollution incident took place, it is thought, over two to three days, but the court heard it was impossible to quantify how much sewage entered the water course.

NWL self-reported the incident to the agency and an officer attended.

Water sample results indicated raw sewage had entered the dene, but a survey days later found the ecology and habitat of the watercourse was damaged for up to two kilometres downstream, with sample results indicating a detrimental impact on water quality for about four kilometres.

The water company began immediate work to clear the blockage that day as well as remedial work to make improvements.

A longer-term solution to re-route the 1920s’ sewer out of the dene is underway.

Malcolm Galloway, representing NWL, said the company oversees 30,000-km of sewers, many in rural locations, across the region.

He said it is investing £5m to remove the offending sewer.

Mr Galloway said it is the first major pollution prosecution NWL has faced since 2014, and it has become an “industry leader”, tackling such issues, earning it “green” ratings by the agency in recent years.

Judge James Adkin said the company was aware of serious tree root ingress following checks on April 3, 2017, and, while there was little time for immediate significant work, it made only, "a makeshift response to an active pollution threat”, using chicken wire and bales near the manhole to hold back sewage debris, which he described as proving, “totally inadequate”, when the pollution incident took place.

He imposed a fine of £540,000, with costs of £142,550 and a £170 statutory surcharge.

NWL agreed to pay within 28 days.

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