Unsafe Seas

Photo: Andy Harvey water testing at Hampton Pier


Stuart Heaver

Same Sh*t Different Day

Every month, Andy Harvey tests the bathing water quality in the Whitstable and Herne Bay area and the results do not make him very enthusiastic about swimming.

“I would never swim in there—I don’t even let my dog paddle in the sea anymore,” he says as he carefully collects a sample of seawater near Hampton Pier for his Aquagenx water quality test kit.

“I have had positive tests for E.coli even in dry weather with little or no rainfall and when no sewage discharges have been reported by Southern Water,” he says.

Test results

Harvey’s test carried out on 15 September revealed the highest possible grading of the 32 measurement levels of E.coli—designated “very unsafe,” by USA Environment Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. The previous test he did in the same spot on 16 August, during the peak holiday bathing season, gave the same alarming result.

“In parts of the USA they would close the beaches within 20 minutes, based on this result,” says Harvey as he displays the test results, but in Whitstable, Tankerton and Herne Bay everyone carries on swimming, sailing and paddling—oblivious to the fact that the sea could be full of harmful pathogens.

Testing the microbiological quality of coastal bathing waters is a complicated science. Quite apart from the variations of tide, salinity, water temperature, sunlight, UV levels and wind, it’s almost impossible to test directly for human pathogens, or for human sewage, so scientists test for what they call faecal indicator organisms (FIO), like E.coli.

It’s a critical public health service because according to the UK Bathing Water Directive, viruses constitute the most significant threat from seawater. They include: adenoviruses which cause respiratory disease, conjunctivitis and gastroenteritis; hepatitis viruses; norwalk­-like viruses and SRSVs, which cause epidemic vomiting, diarrhoea and fever; rotaviruses which cause diarrhoea and gastroenteritis; and enteroviruses, which are responsible for a variety of other unpleasant diseases.

Harvey would be the first to admit he is not a highly qualified ecologist or chemist. He is part of a citizen science project organized by the local Green Party. The Aquagenx kit is used around the world for testing water quality but does not meet the same exacting scientific standards of university or government laboratory tests. However in the absence of any other credible information, the results are extremely disturbing.

The Environment Agency (EA) in conjunction with Canterbury City Council should be doing this— they are happy to take vast sums from beach hut owners but they don’t test the quality of the bathing water where people swim,” says Harvey.

The EA undertakes local seawater quality tests but only in the bathing season (1 May-30 September) and only four times per month. Critics accuse the EA of deliberately selecting dry periods for their tests and colluding with Southern Water so testing is always done before any major sewage discharges, to achieve more favourable results.

Southern Water have promised to install a water quality testing buoy but so far no data has been made available and critics say that asking a convicted illegal polluter to test and accurately report on their own pollution is hardly realistic.

The EA tests for both E.coli and intestinal enterococci (IE) and the nearest official EA testing location to Hampton Pier, is Herne Bay Central. Despite a very dry summer in Kent, on September 13 (two days before Harvey’s “very unsafe” result at Hampton Pier) the official EA tests showed values of 1,400 for E.coli and 1000 for IE. These are also alarming because the EA’s maximum permitted reading for a ‘Sufficient’ rating is 500 cfu/100ml for E.coli and 185 cfu/100ml for IE—so this was several times more pollution than the maximum level allowed for a beach to be rated ‘Sufficient’ yet the official EA rating at Herne Bay Central is ‘Good’.

Anyone swimming in Herne Bay in mid-September 2022 believing it was rated ‘Good’ as designated by the EA, was actually swimming in the poorest conditions measured for many years and potentially damaging their health. The reason that polluted local beaches can be designated ‘Good’ (Whitstable West Beach and Herne Bay Central) or ‘Excellent’ (Tankerton and Herne Bay) is that the EA grades water quality annually based on a four-year average and the 15% worst results are ‘disregarded’.

It is also curious that at 04:58 on the morning of 14 September, just after that EA test at Herne Bay Central the previous afternoon, Southern Water chose that moment to discharge untreated sewage from Swalecliffe No1 long outfall continuously for 7.5 hours. It was one of their longest discharges of 2022. Even more curious, all the four local beaches were tested shortly before the big discharge.

This 7.5 hours discharge on 14 September corresponded with what local weather apps recorded as less than 3mm rainfall per day. This strongly suggests this discharge might have been in breach of Southern Water’s EA permit which only allows discharges after heavy rainfall. If this suspicion was substantiated, it would also make the discharge illegal and the company liable to prosecution.

Swalecliffe No1 is Southern Water’s preferred combined storm outfall (CSO) for their raw sewage discharges. The start of the ebb tide is their favourite time for discharging it, preferably at night or in the early hours of the morning, when no-one is around. According to Southern Water data, over the course of September 2022, there were 19 separate sewage discharges from Swalecliffe No 1 over the course of eight different days, with a total of 27.17 hours of sewage discharge from this single outfall. And this was all during a relatively dry month.

Southern Water do not advertise what the pumping rate is for this huge pipe that runs 2.7km out to sea, off Long Rock or exactly how much raw sewage is mixed with semi-treated sewage and storm water. So it’s not known how many Olympic sized swimming pools of untreated sewage this is. But it’s a lot.

Not surprisingly, there have been many protests in Whitstable, Tankerton and Herne Bay against sewage pollution by Southern Water over the last year. Another is scheduled for this Sunday 9 October, organized by the campaign group, SOS Whitstable. There have been at least two high profile petitions signed by tens of thousands of people and a payment boycott joined by many local residents, including campaigner Julie Wassmer and local Conservative councilor, Ashley Clark. The boycott was endorsed by Bob Geldof and attracted national media attention. Local MP Rosie Duffield has chaired two public meetings and raised questions in parliament. The outrage transcends all party allegiances and all walks of life in this coastal community with its fate closely bonded to the sea.

Local campaigners, protesters and volunteer citizen scientists are not financially compensated for their time and effort opposing sewage pollution. By contrast, the 2021-22 Southern Water annual report reveals that CEO Ian McAuley, received approximately £1.4 million in total remuneration in 2021-22. Here is a helpful graph to demonstrate how that vast remuneration was made up:

Despite living in a democracy, the well-publicised protest actions from all sections of the community have had no meaningful effect.

Not only is the sewage pollution problem worsening, Southern Water still appear to be engaged in potentially illegal pollution with impunity, while giving record levels of remuneration to those responsible. Local sewage pollution will continue to intensify with more large scale housing development overloading an already antiquated and overloaded wastewater system, with the blessing of Canterbury City Council. The inadequate levels of regulation are more likely to be loosened, than tightened.

For those brave, or misinformed enough, to enter local waters this autumn, the only testing for unsafe water quality will be that undertaken by Andy Harvey and his fellow volunteers at the Green Party. Unfortunately though, due to a shortage of funds, they only have 15 kits left.

Barricade the Beach sewage pollution protest takes place at Tankerton Beach on Sunday 9 October starting at 2pm.

Stuart Heaver

Professional journalist and author.

My new book was published by The History Press on 23 June 2022. 

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