England’s Windermere lake grappling with pollution

An independent report examining the Environment Agency’s investigation into severe pollution of a stream flowing into Windermere has uncovered numerous errors in the agency’s conduct. Consequently, the agency failed to identify the cause of the toxic incident that led to the death of all aquatic life in the affected waterway. The report, obtained through freedom of information by the WildFish group, asserts that the Environment Agency inadequately probed the significant pollution during the summer of 2022, causing extensive damage to Cunsey Beck, a site of special scientific interest, resulting in the death of hundreds of fish.

Save Windermere, a campaign group, contends that these revelations constitute crucial evidence of regulatory failures. In response, the group has launched a petition, urging an independent inquiry into Environment Agency regulation in the Cumbria and Lancashire region, calling for the board’s resignation, and advocating for improved regulation and scrutiny of United Utilities, the water company involved.

The pollution event in the beck, a tributary to England’s largest lake and an area of outstanding natural beauty, was classified as a category 1 pollution event by the Environment Agency, signifying the most severe level. The agency suspected that 100% of life within the river had perished. However, an undisclosed independent review by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), commissioned by the Environment Agency but never made public, reveals significant flaws in the investigation:

  • Lack of a clear, systematic approach to identifying and eliminating potential sources.
  • Absence of documented witness interviews.
  • Limited sampling locations on Cunsey Beck.
  • Failure to conduct postmortems on the deceased fish.

The SEPA team indicated that a more robust investigation by the Environment Agency could have potentially identified the cause. The review underscores that the investigation did not align with SEPA’s expectations for an incident of this nature.

Cunsey Beck directly flows into Windermere, which is already grappling with pollution from various sources. The SEPA report suggests that the Environment Agency failed to gather sufficient evidence to exclude discharges from a water treatment works as a contributing factor to the incident.

Save Windermere campaign founder Matt Staniek criticizes the Environment Agency’s continued failure to regulate United Utilities adequately, accusing them of negligence in protecting Windermere and its tributaries.

The SEPA report further reveals that the Environment Agency neglected to collect evidence from individuals who identified the pollution, saw an unidentified blue tanker in the area, or were sludge removal tanker drivers on that day. Environmental evidence, including sampling, was not taken by the Environment Agency from specific locations.

WildFish’s water policy officer, James Overington, criticizes the Environment Agency’s handling of the investigation as careless, irrational, and unscientific. He expresses concern that such incidents will persist without proper agency resources and enforcement.

United Utilities denies responsibility for the incident, asserting that it thoroughly checked its wastewater systems at the time. The Environment Agency acknowledges shortcomings in its response and emphasizes improvements in water quality monitoring, including real-time river quality sensors.

In summary, the independent report sheds light on deficiencies in the Environment Agency’s investigation into the severe pollution of Cunsey Beck, raising questions about regulatory oversight, prompting calls for reforms, and highlighting the need for accountability in protecting the environment.

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