UNITED Utilities has been fined £750,000 after pleading guilty to allowing seven million litres of raw sewage to flow into the Duddon Estuary.

The company was also ordered to pay £38,501.95 in costs and a £120 victim surcharge at hearing at Preston Crown Court today following a prosecution by the Environment Agency.

The discharge escaped into the Duddon Estuary on May 12 2013 after the failure of the United Utilities owned King Street Pumping Station in Millom.

The pumping station is supposed to move raw sewage from local homes and businesses to a nearby waste water treatment works, but on April 11 2013 the standby storm pump was taken away for repairs and no substitute standby pump was provided or maintained, breaching the permit conditions required to operate the facility.

A routine check of the pumping station by UU on May 13 2013 found that the remaining pump had failed, leading to untreated sewage being discharged into the Duddon Estuary.

A subsequent investigation found that the pump had failed at 2:30pm on May 12 2013, so the pumping station had been discharging raw sewage for 16 hours.

Full pumping capacity was not restored at the pumping station until May 17 2013 meaning that, even after the incident and in the event of further heavy rainfall, there were a further four days where untreated sewage could have flowed into the estuary.

Andrew Frankish, Lead Investigating Officer for the Environment Agency, said: “The discharge of such a large quantity of raw sewage had the potential to cause significant deterioration in water quality and harm the environment.

“The Duddon Estuary is internationally important due to its mud flats and saltmarsh, which provide vital habitats for migratory wading birds and an important breeding ground for sea birds.

“At the time of the incident, the estuary was also host to three designated bathing waters, so the health of local communities and visitors was placed at risk.

“The case illustrates that the Environment Agency will not hesitate to take action where companies pollute the environment, especially where measures could have been put in place to avoid it.”

His honour, Judge Byrne, said: “There had been a reckless failure by the organisation to put in place and to enforce such systems as could reasonably be expected in all the circumstances to avoid the commission of the offence.”

UU co-operated with the Environment Agency’s investigation and pleaded guilty to the charges. 

United Utilities Managing Director Steve Fraser said: “We are very sorry this incident happened, but we think the level of fine is unfair given that we proactively reported this incident to the Environment Agency ourselves as soon as we became aware of it, and there was no evidence of any ill effects on the environment.

“We have worked closely with the Environment Agency to understand what happened. Tankers and temporary pumps helped make sure there were no further discharges at the time, and we scoured the salt marsh for unpleasant litter. Fortunately there was none.

“We’ve spent £18m improving sewage disposal and treatment at Millom to improve the general health of the Duddon Estuary.

“As part of that project, King Street Pumping Station was completely re-fitted.  All the pumps, the power supply and the alarm system were replaced and its capacity to pump storm water to the nearby treatment works has more than doubled.”