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Sewage spilt into River Cam for 4,400 hours in a year, figures reveal

Anglian Water has come under fire after figures revealed sewage was dumped into the River Cam for more than 4,400 hours in 2023.

Campaigners were shocked by records showing that the amount of time storm overflows at one site – Haslingfield – were spilling sewage was almost nine times more than the previous year.

The settlement tanks at Anglian Water's existing waste water treatment works in north Cambridge
The settlement tanks at Anglian Water's existing waste water treatment works in north Cambridge

Data published by the Environment Agency (EA) reveals there were 172 spills from Haslingfield in 2023, up from 42 in 2022. The duration of the sewage spills had also increased tenfold from 298.5 hours in 2022 to a whopping 2,935 hours in 2023, the figures show.

In Cambridge, there were 74 spills into the Cam from the waste water treatment works in 2023, which lasted for a duration of 1,476 hours, meaning sewage was being dumped in the river for 17 per cent of the year.

In total, the Cam was receiving sewage from these two sources for 4,411 hours.

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “We are disappointed to see our spill numbers have increased this year. However, we are confident that investments we’ve been making to reduce spills have moved the dial in the right direction and spills would have been considerably higher without it.

“It is important to acknowledge the exceptionally wet weather we had late last year, which meant that 70 per cent of our spills were in Q4 alone and in stark comparison to the extremely dry year in 2021, as climate change continues to result in more extreme weather events.”

A spokesperson for Cam Valley Forum responded: “From our analysis, the slightly higher rainfall in 2023 doesn’t seem sufficient to explain last year’s dramatic increase in sewage spills from Cambridge and Haslingfield sewage works.

“It’s truly shocking that the ageing and overloaded sewage works at Haslingfield were spilling sewage for 34 per cent of the whole year.”

The spokesperson added: “Climate change is clearly making the problems worse, so unless we all cut our carbon emissions, no amount of investment will be able to prevent the horrific consequences.”

Overall, Anglian Water recorded 31,623 sewage spills in 2023 and sewage was spilling for a total of 273,163 hours. The average spill was 8.6 hours long and one in five of its 1,563 storm overflows spilled sewage 40 times or more during the year, with some recording more than 100.

The overflows were spilling sewage for 2.2 per cent of the time through the year.

The figures come amid growing anger over the polluted state of England’s rivers and coasts, with no single stretch of river classed as being in a good overall condition.

They were described as “disappointing” but “sadly not surprising” by the EA’s director of water Helen Wakeham.

She said: “We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.”

Water minister Robbie Moore pointed to action the government had taken on the issue, with a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections next year, fast-tracked £180million investment to cut spills and a whistleblowing portal launched for water company workers to report breaches.

In response to the figures, a spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “These results are unacceptable and demonstrate exactly why we urgently need regulatory approval to upgrade our system so it can better cope with the weather. We have a plan to sort this out by tripling investment which will cut spills by 40 per cent by 2030 – more than double the government’s target.

“We now need the regulator Ofwat to give us the green light so that we can get on with it.”

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