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Fighting Dirty: High Court battle over UK sewage sludge contamination negligence

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Fighting Dirty: High Court battle over UK sewage sludge contamination negligence

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Environmental campaigners secure High Court hearing to challenge Environment Agency's failure in regulating sewage sludge contaminants

In a significant development for environmental justice, the campaign group Fighting Dirty has been granted a High Court hearing to challenge the Environment Agency's (EA) controversial decision to abandon its commitment to test sewage sludge for microplastics and harmful chemicals before being utilised as agricultural fertiliser.

The roots of this legal battle trace back to a 2017 report commissioned by the EA, which revealed alarming levels of dangerous organic contaminants, including dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in English crops. The report also highlighted the presence of physical contaminants, such as plastics, which could render soils unsuitable for agriculture and pose potential risks to human health.

In response to these findings, the EA acknowledged the inadequacy of the 'do nothing' approach in 2020 and committed to integrating the testing and regulation of sewage sludge into the Environmental Permitting Regime by 2023. This commitment aimed to ensure that all sewage sludge, originating from water treatment plants and septic tanks, undergoes thorough testing for microplastics and harmful chemicals before being distributed to farmers as fertiliser.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving the regulatory framework for sludge, and where there is evidence of harm to the environment from sludge spreading, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action.

“Our Sludge Strategy is designed to promote the safe and sustainable use of sludge in agriculture. It also ensures water companies can contribute to productive farming while meeting their environmental obligations to clean up waterways and promote healthy soil.

However, by July 2023, no progress had been reported, prompting Fighting Dirty to inquire about the status of the EA's actions. Shockingly, the EA's response revealed not progress, but a backtrack. The updated Strategy for Safe and Sustainable Sludge Use web page abandoned the 2023 deadline, reverting to a 'do-nothing' position without providing an alternative timeline.

This revelation raises concerns about the lack of a timetable to address the issue of harmful chemicals present in the 3.5 million tonnes of sludge spread on UK agricultural land annually. Fighting Dirty, led by campaigners Georgia Elliott-Smith, George Monbiot, and Steve Hynd, is represented by the environmental legal team at Leigh Day in their pursuit of justice.

George Monbiot expressed the severity of the situation, stating, "Thousands of hectares of prime farmland are being contaminated every year with a cocktail of toxic chemicals, with scarcely any testing or documentation." He emphasised the government's awareness of the issue, calling out its failure to take necessary action.

Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental professional, stressed the pivotal role of strong regulation in directing investment and innovation towards tackling pollution. She noted the struggles faced by British industry due to weak and contradictory regulations, underinvestment, and constant uncertainty. By pursuing legal action, Fighting Dirty aims to compel the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to deliver on their promises and implement an effective permitting regime.

Steve Hynd, Policy Manager at the not-for-profit City to Sea, underscored the significance of the High Court hearing in regulating a major source of pollution. He expressed dismay over the unregulated spreading of a "poisonous cocktail" on farmland and criticised the regulatory gaps that allowed such environmental negligence.

Leigh Day solicitor Julia Eriksen emphasised the irrationality of the EA's decision not to replace the target date, considering their knowledge of dangerous sludge contamination since 2017. She highlighted the importance of the High Court case initiated by Fighting Dirty, recognising it as a crucial step toward holding the government accountable for its failure to protect public and environmental interests.

This legal battle represents a pivotal moment in addressing the environmental disaster stemming from unregulated sludge contamination and underscores the need for robust regulatory measures to safeguard the health of both humans and the environment.

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