The difficulties of managing a response in the water industry

By Chris Ramsbottom, Head of Operational and Technical Support

Managing a response for water companies can be fraught with an assortment of complications and considerations. Chris Ramsbottom, Head of Operational and Technical Support in the environmental consultancy division, takes a look at the issues a spillage can throw at those tasked with its containment and clean-up.

Despite programmes of continual infrastructure improvement, legacy issues mean that burst pipes, leaks and wrongly connected pipework do occur. And these can lead to contamination by sewage that should be kept out of our natural water courses.

One major challenge when dealing with a spill in the water industry is to accurately assess the impact of an incident. Different systems are in use in different regions of the UK. Under the scheme, any spillage or discharge of noxious, poisonous or polluting matter to surface waters or groundwater is presumed by the regulator to have an impact and it is the responsibility of the operator to prove otherwise.

It is imperative to quickly establish the true picture. Should an incident prove to be more severe; an efficient emergency clean-up response can swing into action to prevent widespread, lasting harm.

The inherited problems associated with ageing infrastructure are acknowledged, however, recent events suggest that there is a growing appetite for penalising companies with increasingly larger fines, and firms may also be prosecuted if the clean-up operation can’t restore an ecosystem to its natural state.

Aside from the environmental and financial implications, the reputations of those involved and the sector can be harmed.

Fortunately, when our technicians are called in to investigate, their samples often reveal that a spill is far less serious than initially feared and an accurate risk assessment dials it back to the true Category.

We can coordinate the wider response. Given the intense scrutiny that the water utilities are under, an essential element of the mix when doing so is transparency and effective communications. Emergency response organisations like ours must have the utmost sensitivity to the public’s concerns about spill incidents, engaging and informing individuals, key stakeholders, organisations and the media alike.

The speed of response is critical to containing and minimising the impacts of an incident and so we must have enough, suitably capable, fully equipped teams on constant standby distributed across the UK to respond safely to any incident nationwide.

A key part of a fast response is quick notification and the challenge here is for water companies and other stakeholders to have the reliance on a system that enables rapid notification.

At a spill site, we must quickly establish the impacts of the incident including the source of the pollution, how it got there and where it’s going, we do this by liaising with multiple different authorities, regulators, and neighbours.

There are numerous challenges involved in managing spill response incidents, but none are insurmountable and having a good support network is critical.

While the total avoidance of incidents can never be guaranteed, a proactive spend is always lower than a reactive one. Proactive environmental risk management surveys can anticipate what could cause a future incident, what could be harmed and how, and what mitigation measures may help to prevent the incident from occurring.

As the market-leading environmental risk reduction and clean-up specialist, the utilities and their partners can rest assured that our knowledge of them and their sector makes us an indispensable partner for completely resolving any incident fast, without compromises.


Engineer overlooking water treatment plant