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Worst Polluter in England and Wales Brings Rotten Record toUnited States

Oct. 21, 2002

Worst Polluter in England and Wales Brings Rotten Record to United States

Private Water and Sewer Giant Pays Fines But Does Not Fix Problems

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thames Water, the giant company that is involved in taking over water and sewer systems in communities across the United States, ranked as the worst polluter in England and Wales for two of the three past years and likely will rank as the worst again in 2002, according to the Environment Agency in England.

A Public Citizen profile of Thames’ recent environmental performance found that dating back to 1999, Thames has been convicted of environmental and public health violations 24 times and fined approximately $700,000. In case after case, regulators found that the company was aware of conditions that led to raw sewage discharges and could have prevented the pollution. It appears, however, that Thames’ corporate strategy is based on the notion that paying fines is less expensive than paying to maintain and operate water and sewer systems cleanly and safely.

Currently in negotiations to be purchased by RWE AG, the German energy conglomerate, Thames’ business model is being imported to the United States as part of an increasing concentration and consolidation of transnational corporations pushing to privatize the world’s water. RWE is acquiring American Water Works, the largest publicly held U.S.-based water utility with operations in 29 states, and RWE plans to put its new U.S. operations under Thames’ supervision.

Citizens in Lexington, Ky., Stockton, Calif., and other communities from coast to coast are alarmed at the prospect of their water supplies coming under control of a gigantic global corporation with a dismal environmental record.

“Citizens must stop this reckless polluter from snapping up their water systems,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “Water is a precious resource and access to clean water is a basic human right. We can’t afford to allow a company such as Thames to have unfettered access to it.”

People have good reason to be concerned. In 1999, Thames was successfully prosecuted by the British government for pollution eight times. No company was prosecuted more often. In 2000, Thames was fined nearly $450,000 for pollution—more than any other company in England and Wales. In case after case, officials found that Thames was aware of conditions that led to the pollution and could have prevented them, and the company was repeatedly criticized for ignoring warnings, failing to respond appropriately and unnecessarily endangering public health and the environment.

  • In Dartford, England, in 1998, Thames was fined roughly $70,000 for failing to promptly and competently stop sewage that was discharging into the River Cray. Officials later characterized the violation as “unique” in that the company admitted to in “knowingly permitting the discharge to the Cray.”
  • In 2000, a pumping station failure in southeast London resulted in raw sewage and toxic industrial waste overflowing into a street and flooding nearby homes. Residents suffered headaches, nausea and vomiting, and many were treated in hospitals. Ten houses were rendered uninhabitable. An estimated 22.5 million liters of raw sewage and waste was pumped into the River Thames. Thames was fined $400,000, the largest fine ever under the waste management law Thames had violated, and the court harshly criticized the company for its “complete disregard for human health and the environment.”
  • In 2001, a blocked sewer in Hampshire caused sewage to flow into the River Wey and lakes in the area. While Thames’ contractors arrived on the scene quickly, their shift ended before they fixed the problem, and they did not clear the source of the discharge until the following day. Hundreds of fish died as a result, and Thames was fined more than $30,000. Magistrates said they were stunned at Thames’ “exceptional levels of incompetence.”

As Thames swoops into communities in the United States, citizens, civic leaders and elected officials at all levels should work together to stop Thames from gaining control of water systems and jeopardizing the public health and environment, Hauter said.

To read the entire report online, click here.