Warning: Sussex seas may damage your health

This is the first in our new “Toxic Shock” series of articles, written and researched by Rick Dillon & Ginny Smith, investigating the growing amount of pollution in our county’s rivers, streams, ponds and, increasingly, our beloved Sussex seaside…

Two women set off for a swim at the beach
Repeated sewage spills are destroying our seas for swimmers as well as casual bathers and… entire ecosystems.
Photo (above) of two members of the local swimming-activist group South Coast Sirens clipped from BBC report.

Health warning: if you have a delicate constitution you should probably only read this on an empty stomach, because our subject is – to put it bluntly – shit.  That’s both the literal meaning of the word and its use to describe a rotten situation – in this case one involving a privately run water utility owned by an overseas holding company, sheltered in Jersey for tax reasons, a desperately overstretched and crumbling wastewater infrastructure, and multiple illegal spills of sewage into inland waterways and bathing waters around the Sussex coast over many years.  

The latest incident – a massive discharge of sewage into the sea near beach huts at St Leonards on Sea – forced the closure of beaches all along the Hastings seafront; red flags flew, warning bathers that they entered the water at their own risk. The seriousness of this risk is made clear by Cornwall-based campaigning organisation Surfers Against Sewage: “When we surf, swim or play in water that has raw sewage in it we are at risk of gastroenteritis, ear, nose and throat infections, skin infections, and even hepatitis and e-coli. Poor water quality can also harm river and ocean wildlife, reducing biodiversity and damaging delicate ecosystems.

Southern Water’s “shocking disregard” for environment

Bathers have now been able to return to the sea at Hastings, but this recent sewage discharge is just the latest in a long line. So you’d think something urgent would be done to stop it, to force our south coast water company, Southern Water, to act, right?

Wrong. The courts recently levelled a £90 million fine on Southern Water for spillages between 2010 and 2015.  It was the largest penalty ever imposed on a water company, although we suspect not nearly enough to worry its shareholders, given that the company’s reported operating profits were £213 million for one year (2019) alone. Southern promised to do better in future. Passing judgement on the case, Justice Jeremy Johnson said: “These offences show a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for precious and delicate ecosystems and coastlines, for human health, and for fisheries and other legitimate businesses that operate in the coastal waters.”

Sewage detritus washed up on Saltdean beach earlier this month.  Photo credit: Steve May

Cross-party condemnation

The Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, whose constituency covers the coastline from Peacehaven to Birling Gap, has taken the issue up with ministers and says in a statement to Sussex Bylines that “it is not acceptable in this day and age for things like this to happen”.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, believes that there is little incentive for Southern Water to clean up its act. Describing a recent meeting with its CEO, he said it appeared that “they hadn’t really looked into [the problem]” and that it would take billions to resolve. “To me it seems that the problem is so great that it will be cheaper for them to continue to pay the fines without fixing it.

And Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion constituency (which includes the famous Palace Pier and adjacent beaches) has for years consistently condemned Southern Water via Twitter, and did not hold back when she made the following comment in a recent newletter: “Even by the standards of privatised water companies, the actions of Southern Water over a six year period were shocking – the repeated pollution incidents, deliberate dumping of raw sewage in rivers and coastal waters, the deliberate cover-up and the fact that it was done to line the pockets of shareholders. It’s not surprising that Southern Water is repeatedly singled out as the worse performing water company. The Government should acknowledge that privatisation has failed and bring water companies back into public ownership.

And is not the first time Southern Water has broken environmental rules and got off lightly. 

Pollution all along the South Coast

These spills continue to happen all along the South Coast of England.  In June, Hayling Sewage Watch said that five sewage outfalls were discharged into Langstone Harbour over a 61.5-hour period over one weekend.  The Final Straw Foundation posted a letter on their Facebook page written by a 12-year-old girl from West Sussex to Southern Water, describing her outrage at the tons of sewage being pumped into Chichester Harbour where she and her family go sailing.  

Jo Godden, left, and fellow Sirens. Their mission is to gather evidence and raise awareness of sewage pollution. Photo credit: South Coast Sirens

To find out more, Sussex Bylines contacted the campaigning group South Coast Sirens.  Jo Godden, who speaks for the group, described how she and a number of her friends, who are keen all-season swimmers, joined a live Facebook meeting between Southern Water, Brighton & Hove Council, and Surfers Against Sewage earlier this year, at which they learned about the worrying levels of contamination of the local bathing waters. 

They were so outraged by the seeming complacency of Southern Water’s CEO that they decided to set up a group to monitor seawater pollution levels and campaign to clean up Brighton’s beaches. Godden told us: “Southern Water advise us through their new Beachbuoy app where the sewage spills were.  Great to be reporting on the sewage spills but shouldn’t they be trying to stop them altogether?”

Sussex Sirens has raised over £1,000 towards paying for a mobile lab to test collected samples. Click here if you’d like to join their crowdfunding appeal.

STOP PRESS: Even after the recent record fine, Southern Water is proving attractive to investors. The Australian investment bank Macquarie has just acquired a majority stake in the company for more than £1bn.

NEXT UP (coming soon!) in our “Toxic Shock” series – BEAUTIFUL BUT DEADLY: Sussex river pollution – what is being dumped into our “fresh” waterways and why? And how do we hold those responsible to account?

Follow @SussexBylines on social media