Canal Boat - - Contents - STEVE HAY­WOOD Award-win­ning cur­rent af­fairs TV pro­ducer, jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has been a boat owner for nearly 40 years Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Cut­dreamer

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?

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