The dirty truth about sewage on rivers; do complain, but remember to praise as well
Journalists are often accused of putting a spin on stories, so I thought I’d give this one to you as it came to me so you could make up your own minds.
It began in August when I was moored on the Great Ouse just outside St Ives. It was a hot Sunday and the kids were splashing around in the river, their mums and dads preparing BBQs and picnics on the bank. I fell into conversation with the skipper of a cruiser. I’d been complaining about the lack of Elsan disposal facilities on this Environment Agency river.
What he told me shocked me so much that at first I didn’t believe it. He told me that it wasn’t a problem that troubled him much because cruisers on the river were allowed to empty their sea toilets over the side. Suddenly the scene before me took on a new and not altogether pleasant complexion...
The next day I checked, and for some reason sea toilets did seem to fall outside Section 21 of the Environmental Permitting Regulations of 2010 which control these matters.
I contacted the EA to double check. A press officer – let’s call him Bob – replied. He told me that every waterway had its own byelaws, and he made a big deal of telling me what I already knew about the River Thames – that it was an offence to discharge any sanitary appliance into that. Then he slipped in that, yes, on the ‘River Ouse’, it was allowed to discharge sea toilets. But that was the River Ouse, which as far as I knew was run by the Canal & River Trust. I’d asked about the Great Ouse.
I emailed again. Me to Bob, 18 August. ‘Are you saying that boats are allowed to release their sea toilets into the Yorkshire Ouse, but not into the Great Ouse, the East Anglian River that passes through Ely? Or are you saying they are allowed to release their sea toilets into both?’
Bob replied to me the next morning. ‘I will find out.’ Later in the day he wrote again confirming that, indeed, sea toilets COULD be discharged into the Great Ouse. The Yorkshire Ouse, as I knew, was run by CRT which, I checked, doesn’t allow any sewerage discharge into its waters.
By now I was getting curious. If raw sewerage could be discharged into EA waters on the Great Ouse, on how many other EA rivers was it allowed? I emailed Bob again. Ten days passed. Eventually I emailed to remind me of my outstanding request. His reply the following day was brief - but confusing. ‘The same rules apply for the non-tidal Medway as the Great Ouse.’
The non-tidal Medway? The non-tidal MEDWAY! I hadn’t asked him about the Medway, why had he singled it out? I sent him another email. By now I had left the Great Ouse and had crossed the Middle Level to the River Nene – another EA waterway. Did the same rules apply there with regard to sea toilets?
Indeed, did they apply to cassettes, too? Could I empty mine over the side since the EA didn’t exactly provide me with lavish facilities to empty it?
Meanwhile, in response to a comment I’d made on Twitter, the situation was becoming hopelessly confused as other EA staff waded into the debate telling me exactly the opposite to what Bob was saying. They maintained it was strictly prohibited to empty sea toilets into rivers, and those who did faced substantial fines. The confusion now surrounding an apparently simple question led me to believe that the EA wasn’t taking this issue seriously: indeed, it wasn’t taking me, CanalBoat and indeed you, its readers, seriously either. I emailed Bob to make this point.
Finally, the 11th email between us, I got confirmation that boats could empty their sea toilets on not just the Great Ouse, and the Medway, but on the tributaries of the Great Ouse too, and on the river Nene as well. Bob, however, was circumspect about my suggestion that I might empty my cassette over the side. ‘The regulations don’t specify what sort of toilet is permissible,’ he said guardedly. ‘However, if a boater is discharging materials /chemicals that could potentially cause pollution and kill fish it would be an offence against the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, Section 4(1).’
Which is not much of a relief for the parents of those kids splashing around in the river What it amounts to is that cruisers can discharge sewage into the river that could harm children – it’s only if it contains chemicals that kill fish that the boats are breaking the law.
Another oddity of this mess which passes for environment law on the inland waterways struck me a few days later, and I emailed Bob once again. ‘Help me out here,’ I wrote, ‘because the way I read it is that if boaters are discharging CHEMICALS into the water they are liable under the Act, but if they are discharging raw sewage, then that’s OK.’
As this magazine went to press, he hadn’t replied.
‘Cruisers can discharge sewage that could harm children – it’s only if it contains chemicals that kill fish that it’s illegal’
Looks idyllic, but what’s in the water?