The value of environmental credentials – in conversation with Helen Wakeham

30 years ago all our major rivers were open sewers. Now we have otters in every English county and 97% of our bathing beaches pass European standards. But are England’s rivers still among the most polluted in Europe? 

How do you encourage businesses to value a reputation for environmental responsibility when pollution prevention can often be seen as a grudge purchase with little or no benefit to the bottom line?

What carrots and/or sticks can therefore be used to encourage companies and other organisations to tackle water pollution prevention? And does pollution awareness and prevention training heighten preparedness?

I asked Helen Wakeham, Deputy Director for Water Quality, Groundwater and Land Contamination at the Environment Agency, these questions and how the Water Pollution Prevention Awards may be the answer to encouraging companies to think about the importance of water pollution prevention.

What are the major causes of water pollution? 

The biggest culprit for water pollution is sewage and slurry from the water industry and agriculture. Oil is the second most common pollutant in the water environment. It’s easy to identify on a watercourse but sometimes the source is hard to trace as a small amount of oil travels quickly and is visible for a long distance.

Contaminated water from businesses or quarries is third in the list of most common pollutants. The contaminated water usually enters the water environment through clean surface water drains. Either dirty activities are being carried out close to surface water drains due to poor site planning or spills and waste materials are washed into the water environment through surface water drains as an incorrect waste disposal route. 

The Environment Agency monitors, responds to and reports on pollution incidents. How do you find out about these?

We expect self-reporting from the biggest companies. For other incidents, our sources include the incident help line and reports by members of the public and anglers.

Does the regular monitoring of rivers and streams provide useful information?

Absolutely, yes. We take 90,000 water quality samples a year and analyse for more than 1 million determinands. Generally, it’s not that which alerts us to an incident. Acute incidents tend to come and go. So generally, it’s someone seeing something that alerts us to something we would class as a pollution incident.

There are 500 serious incidents and a further 11,500 significant incidents reported per each year. Can you explain the difference between a serious and significant incident?

The most serious would cause significant fish mortality and affect water quality over a significant distance and over a significant period of time. The least serious, but significant, incidents have minor localised effect.

In July 2019, The Times concluded from an analysis of 55 million water-quality tests undertaken by the Environment Agency from 2000 – 2019 that “England’s rivers are among the most polluted in Europe?” Is that a fair representation?

No, and I guess you’ll say I would say that. I don’t contest the numbers because the numbers The Times used were the numbers we gave them.

I really do contest the analysis though. 86% of our waters do fall short of the EU standard which is called “good ecological status”. And that is because good ecological status requires every aspect of water quality must be near natural condition. And that is really very difficult to achieve in European industrialised countries, with whom we are on a par.

Our rivers have improved substantially in the last 30 years and now 97% of our bathing beaches pass the European standards, compared to less than 50% in 1996. Now we have otters in every English county.

But we do now know a lot more about our water environment than we did 30 years ago and we can now detect substances, like pesticides, and there is a bigger job to do.

What is the Environment Agency’s strategy to clean up the UK’s rivers? 

We need a partnership, as we achieved in tackling bathing water standards, of the water industry investment, the local communities, people walking their dogs, chambers of commerce. Everybody in those coastal communities have had to work together to get clean bathing beaches because they all saw the need.

The Agency should do what it uniquely can do, for example in determining what water company investment might be needed and in regulation. 

The best example is the catchment partnership. We’ll provide our monitoring, data and our water quality planning and we will regulate the businesses in that catchment. It is often Rivers Trusts who are better placed to work with other local groups to tackle the problem.

In other examples like the coal mining legacy, the Environment Agency does have a big role. We work with the Coal Authority and with DEFRA to invest public money into cleaning up the legacy of metal and coal mining. 

What we do on the basis of its monitoring is to understand the water environment and to plan to decide what different sectors need to do. 

Let’s be honest, pollution prevention is a grudge purchase. It costs a company money for which there appears little benefit to the company itself, and insurance companies will not alter their premia. Consequently, whilst lip service is paid to environmental issues, all too often, the money will not be spent on pollution prevention implementation. How do you change those kinds of attitudes?

It’s a perennial problem. The easiest way to articulate it is carrot and stick. 

The stick is fines. On the prosecution side, in 2015 the sentencing guidelines changed, and they are now related to the turnover of the company. For example, a couple of years ago to Thames Water was fined more than £20 million for pollution. 

The carrot is the reputational risk for companies.The public interest in the environment is ever expanding so we see that when something goes wrong, companies are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The Water Pollution Prevention Awards are a great idea in providing recognition.  

Are pollution awareness and prevention training important in heightening awareness? They’ve been used very effectively in driver education for people caught for traffic offences.

It’s potentially very costly to make training a legal requirement and unlikely to be going with the flow of government appetite for less regulation. Where training could be introduced is in the follow-up to pollution incidents.

The Water Pollution Prevention Awards are now open for companies to apply for and I gather from your response that the Environment Agency does feel that recognition of companies who have implemented innovative or best practice pollution prevention measures are something that you would endorse.

Absolutely. It has got to be the way to go. The more that industry can be proactive and recognise good practice, the better.

To who are the Water Pollution Prevention Awards relevant?

The water industry is a special case. The awards will be of most interest to small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), where it might be more difficult to get recognition and particularly for environment managers to gain status within their own organisations.

For more information on the Water Pollution Prevention Awards 2020, go to: › water-pollution-prevention-award-2020

  1. Miles Hillmann, Chairman of the Spill Containment and Control Group of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) and MD of Fosse Liquitrol
  2. Helen Wakeham, Deputy Director for Water Quality, Groundwater and Land Contamination at the EA


One comment on “The value of environmental credentials – in conversation with Helen Wakeham”
  1. Roger Merry says:

    Interesting. One point I’d raise would be about the stick part of carrot and stick. What’s the effect of fining a public body a large sum of money? Fine a private company and it hurts them, but fine a publicly owned body and all you do is hurt the public.


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