Staff shortages and a lack of financial support to expensive prosecutions of polluters mean that the Environment Agency, part of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has led to 93% of prosecutions for serious pollution over four years, being downgraded to a warning, despite recommendations from frontline staff for the perpetrators to face the highest sanctions.

Between April 2016 and December 2020, investigators within the agency gathered evidence and prepared case files on 495 serious incidents, involving the worst type of pollution of rivers and coastal waters as well as serious waste crimes, according to the internal document.

They recommended that the agency prosecutes in all the cases. But the document shows that after intervention by managers just 35 cases were taken forward to prosecution, the rest being dealt with via a lower sanction such as a warning letter, or dropped altogether and marked for no further action.

Officers investigating the highest categories of waste pollution, including those perpetrated by individuals involved in serious organised crime, recommended prosecution in 386 cases. But only 4% of cases were pursued, while the rest were downgraded to a caution, enforcement notice or warning letter, or marked for no further action. The scale of dropped prosecutions was revealed as the government claimed it was engaged in a crackdown on waste criminals.

When it came to the investigation of serious pollution incidents in rivers and coastal waters, investigating officers said 109 cases should be prosecuted. These are likely to have involved breaches of permits by water companies leading to illegal discharges of raw sewage, as well as other serious water pollution. Only 21 cases, however, were pursued to a prosecution; just 19%.

The information supports claims from within the EA that it has been cut back to such an extent investigating pollution incidents have been deprioritised and the regulator was no longer a deterrent to polluters.

Surely there is a link between strong regulation, leading to prosecution that in turn leads to the ability to invest further in compliance which over time will improve the environment and improve the behaviour of those who ‘bend’ the rules. The failure to prosecute encourage poor compliance.

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