Yorkshire Water pays record £1m to charities after polluting Harrogate beck
Last updated Nov 30, 2023
A photo of cloudy water in Hookstone Beck caused by pollution from an unauthorised sewage release by Yorkshire Water.
Cloudy water in Hookstone Beck caused by pollution from Yorkshire Water's unauthorised sewage discharge.

Yorkshire Water has paid a record £1 million to environmental and wildlife charities after polluting a Harrogate river, following an investigation by the Environment Agency.

The utility company polluted Hookstone Beck with an unauthorised sewage discharge from Hookstone Road combined sewer overflow, killing fish and breaching its environmental permit.

It submitted an Enforcement Undertaking to the Environment Agency, proposing a charitable donation totalling £1 million, which is the largest ever accepted by the Agency.

It has paid £500,000 to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and £500,000 to Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust. It has also completed a significant £1.85 million sewer network upgrade in the area as part of the enforcement terms.

Claire Barrow, Environment Agency area environment manager in Yorkshire, said:

“We always consider enforcement options on a case-by-case basis and Enforcement Undertakings allow companies to put right what went wrong and contribute to environmental improvements and outcomes.

“This significant £1 million civil sanction will be invested back into the local area to enhance the environment for people and wildlife.

“The Environment Agency investigation also led to significant improvements to the sewer network in this area to prevent repeat incidents and ensure future compliance with environmental requirements.”

A photo of polluted water flowing into Hookstone Beck.

Polluted water flowing into Hookstone Beck. Photo: Environment Agency.

The Stray Ferret has extensively covered this issue.  As we reported  in July 2023, it agreed to pay £235,000 to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust following an illegal discharge into Hookstone Beck in 2015. Two years ago, we also reported on a “sea of bubbles” that appeared in the beck.

And the problems are not confined to that particular watercourse. Earlier this year, the Stray Ferret revealed that Yorkshire Water had discharged sewage into the River Nidd 870 times in 2022, and levels of the harmful bacteria E. coli are “concerningly high”.

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An Enforcement Undertaking is a voluntary offer made by companies or individuals to make amends for their offending, and usually includes a payment to an environmental charity to carry out environmental improvements in the local area.

Hookstone Road combined sewer overflow has an environmental permit which allows a discharge into the beck when the storm sewage facility is full due to rainfall or snow melt.

On August 31, 2016 the Environment Agency received a report of pollution in Hookstone Beck. Investigating officers traced it to the overflow at Hookstone Road, which had blocked and not alerted Yorkshire Water due to faulty telemetry equipment.

The investigation found that almost 1,500 fish had been killed and water quality affected for 2.5km downstream. A series of further blockages and discharges took place in the following months.

A detailed Environment Agency investigation was undertaken, this included the use of devices called sondes in the river to measure the impact of ammonia and an assessment of Event Duration Monitoring data that revealed the company was in breach of its environmental permit.

As part of the Enforcement Undertaking requirements Yorkshire Water has already carried out a significant £1.85 million improvement and rebuilding project to the overflow and surrounding sewer network to bring it back into compliance with its environmental permit.

A photo of cloudy water in Hookstone Beck caused by pollution from an unauthorised sewage release by Yorkshire Water.

Photo: Environment Agency.

A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water said:

“This incident was initially caused by a plank of wood that shouldn’t have been in the sewer network and took place seven years ago. We acted quickly to stop the pollution but understand incidents of this kind are distressing and when things go wrong, we understand we have a responsibility to make it right and to prevent these things from happening at all.

“Unfortunately, it has taken seven years to reach an agreement with the Environment Agency to donate funds to local wildlife charities that will directly benefit Yorkshire, but we are pleased to have finally provided funds to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.

“We’re committed to protecting the environment and our procedures and processes have evolved significantly since 2016, contributing to a halving of pollution incidents in the last five years. Following this incident in 2016, we spent almost £2 million to improve the sewer network in the area to prevent repeat issues.”

Individuals and organisations that pollute the environment will soon face unlimited penalties under new legislation being brought forward by the government. The current limit of variable monetary penalties that the Environment Agency can impose directly on operators will be lifted, following a government consultation which received widespread public support.

This will offer regulators a more efficient method of enforcement than lengthy and costly criminal prosecutions, although the most serious cases will continue to be taken through criminal proceedings.

Water Minister Robbie Moore said:

“This record penalty paid by Yorkshire Water demonstrates that those who damage our natural environment will be held to account.

“Our Plan for Water is all about delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement right across the water sector – and this penalty for Yorkshire Water demonstrates that we will take robust action when required.

“Our Plan includes scrapping the cap on civil penalties by introducing unlimited fines and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences – from breaches of storm overflow permits to the reckless disposal of hazardous waste.”

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust will use the payment in North Yorkshire for new and improved homes for wildlife, mainly on their wetland reserves. This includes reprofiling Ripon City Wetlands to create muddy shores for wading birds, safe breeding islands and removing invasive plants, as well as replacing equipment. Habitat improvements on the River Tutt at Staveley nature reserve will also help to store flood water, protecting communities downstream.

Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust will use the payment to develop a programme of improvements along the River Nidd. It will be working through the catchment partnership Dales to Vales Rivers Network with local communities and other organisations to build on existing work with citizen scientists.