Britain's polluted rivers have become 'a dumping ground for industry'
Iolo ap Dafydd in west Wales

The babbling waters of the Cleddau river were once a haven for salmon and trout, where fishermen and kayakers and swimmers could find peace and beauty.

But when CGTN visited the waterway after being alerted by local people, we found an environmental tragedy. Stretches of the river were covered with an oily scum, a rubbery foam could be found washed up on the banks and pipes spurted out untreated sewage.


'No deterrent'

The situation is far from unique: pollution in UK rivers and coastlines has reached such a serious level that almost all waterways have been impacted. 

A parliamentary report on the quality of river water in 2022 described a 'chemical cocktail' of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic – prompting the launch of a review into how environmental departments enforce agricultural pollution laws.

Only 14 percent of British rivers are classed as having a good ecological status. The rest are being polluted. On the Cleddau, fishermen and residents became so frustrated at the continuing degradation that they began recording and documenting the state river – and what they found only increased their anger.

"It has just become a dumping ground for industry because it's not being policed – there's no deterrent for anybody," says local angler Simon Walters, who has witnessed the declining fish population. 

"Migratory salmon and sea trout have been in demise, I'd say, for over 25 years," he says. "But they've rapidly dropped off now over the last five years. So much so, I don't even think there's a sustainable amount of fish left in the Cleddau to keep the population going."


Industrial waste

The causes of the problem are largely known. An intensification of agriculture in the surrounding area has led to more and more nutrients leaching into the river. This promotes the growth of algae which suck oxygen from the water. 

In addition, climate change has caused significant fluctuations in the volume of rainwater flowing into the river, which can rinse out the unwanted material.

But there are other, more striking problems.

First Milk's cheese-making plant in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, has apologized for discharging two different types of waste into the Cleddau river earlier this year. Speaking to CGTN Europe during their annual maintenance shutdown, First Milk CEO Shelagh Hancock says she isn't clear exactly what is coming out of the facility's waste pipes.

"We have had analysis, and it's been inconclusive at this stage as to what it actually is or how it's being formed. We believe it is some form of naturally, naturally occurring biological… material – and that work is ongoing," Hancock says.


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First Milk says it's spent almost a million dollars on temporary measures to stop different substances being discharged into the Cleddau river and promises to invest a further $2.5million by next spring.

"What we can do is move forward in a positive way and take the action that's going to help address these issues," says Hancock.

Asked to guarantee an end to the pollution, she responds:

"We are continuing to work. I think… all the action we've taken to date will minimize impact … on every aspect of what… of our treatment and our discharge."

Campaigners are stepping up where it's felt UK environment regulators aren't doing enough. Ric Cooper is a kayaker and swims in the river. With others, he gathers samples, documents results and presents data to challenge alleged polluters that the ecology of the Cleddau is being eroded.

"First Milk need to stop doing what they're doing – they've probably 80 per cent solved the problem but not 100 per cent," he says, before naming another company often accused by campaigners of threatening river quality. 

UK river pollution has reached a serious level. /CGTN Europe
UK river pollution has reached a serious level. /CGTN Europe

UK river pollution has reached a serious level. /CGTN Europe

"I think Welsh Water must put phosphate reduction technology into the Merlin's Bridge plant as soon as possible," he says. "It's planned for their next investment cycle – so it could be 2030. It's too late for this river and it needs to happen immediately."


CGTN witnessed both treated and raw sewage being emptied into the Cleddau

The test Cooper collects while he's with CGTN shows there's twice the amount of phosphate in the river than there should be. We join him on his boat to check other parts of the western Cleddau river and within a few minutes we see the extent of the problem.

Stretching for about half a mile along the river is a slick of brown, viscous material, topped with dirty white foam. It doesn't look pleasant, it doesn't look very safe – and it doesn't look natural. Just a few miles upstream there is a sewage treatment plant and overflow pipe.

Welsh Water acknowledged that at times of heavy rain it sometimes has to release sewage into the river – this is permitted by law – but is investing to reduce its impact. 

"We are aware that the storm overflow at [Haverfordwest] operated on Saturday following heavy rain," said a Welsh Water spokesman. "Due to this being a large catchment area, it can take time for the water to work its way through the system but these storm overflows are essential as they act as relief valves to prevent the sewerage system becoming overwhelmed and flooding homes and businesses."

That 2022 parliamentary report said that poor river water quality "is a result of chronic underinvestment and multiple failures in monitoring, governance and enforcement." Kayaker Cooper couldn't agree more with that description.

"I'm not surprised because those are the facts and those facts have been apparent for years," he says. "And it's the same story everywhere. There are things that can be done to reduce it – and we don't do it enough."

Natural Resources Wales is currently investigating First Milk. /CGTN Europe
Natural Resources Wales is currently investigating First Milk. /CGTN Europe

Natural Resources Wales is currently investigating First Milk. /CGTN Europe

'Shared responsibility'

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is charged by the Welsh government with protecting the environment and has an annual budget of almost $320million and 2,400 staff.

But Huwel Manley, NRW's head of operations in south-west Wales, says responsibility for problems should be shared.

"The state of rivers is not just solely NRW responsibility," Manley tells CGTN. "It's all of our responsibility, societal responsibility."

Local residents have expressed fury at what they see as delays in investigating incidents which seems to allow pollutors to operate with impunity.

Manley accepts that sometimes the agency is unable to meet its targets for investigation owing to the safety risks of operating near fast-running water in darkness. He also admits that it is often dependent on the public to report incidents before it can respond. 

However, confronted with another criticism that too few offenders ever end up with fines, Manley pushes back. 

"We do take action and we do prosecute where the evidence is there," he insists. "But of course, in our approach to enforcement, we have multiple tools available…"

NRW is currently investigating First Milk's alleged pollution in the western Cleddau river and says it's assessing evidence. There should be plenty of it about: Besides the tests carried out by people like Cooper, campaigners also willingly share videos of what looks a lot like pollution. At high tide the previous weekend, a frothy white fluid was released from the company's outflow pipe. 

"They're not investigating enough, which they claim is down to resources and they're not prosecuting enough," says Cooper. "There needs to be a stronger deterrent."

Britain's polluted rivers have become 'a dumping ground for industry'

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