Thames Water has been fined £20.3 million for polluting the River Thames with 1.9 billion litres of 'untreated' sewage.

It is the largest penalty handed down to a water utility for an environmental disaster. 

The discharges in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire left people and farm livestock ill and killed fish and other animals living in the river, putting anglers and fishermen out of business.

Among those to suffer from the polluted river was comedian David Walliams, who endured 'Thames Tummy' after he had completed a 140-mile charity swim of the Thames.

Oxford Mail:

Judge Francis Sheridan said at an earlier hearing that it was 'no wonder' the TV personalitfell ill during his mammoth swim.

Slapping the water company with a £20,361,140 fine, which is ten times higher than the previous record penalty paid by Southern Water, Judge Francis Sheridan said: "This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs."

He added: "It should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions."

Thames Water has 21 days to pay.

Richard Aylard, from Thames Water, said outside the court: "We have failed in our responsibility to the environment and that hurts both personally and professionally because we do care.

"We've also failed in our responsibility to our customers, who pay us to provide an essential public service all the time, every day and not just some of the time, and we apologise for all of those failings.

"But in the three years since the last of those incidents we have learnt our lesson - there have been sweeping, far-reaching changes across the waste water business."

Mr Aylard said the company now employs more people and better systems to improve its performance. 

He also insisted customers will not face an increase in prices and added: "This fine will be paid in full by shareholders only."

At a previous hearing Thames Water admitted environmental charges over discharged from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency's chief prosecutor, said: "Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works.

"Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the Environment Agency as required by water company industry protocol."

Oxford Mail:

A dead fish found in the River Thame near to the Aylesbury sewage treatment work. Picture: Environment Agency

According to the Environment Agency, which brought the Thames prosecution, the previous largest fine handed down to a water utility for an environmental disaster was given to Southern over an incident on Margate Beach in Kent in 2012.

Consumer groups and charities welcome the fine:

Sir Tony Redmond, the London and South East chairman of the Consumer Council for Water, said: "These were extremely serious and unacceptable failings by Thames Water which had a devastating impact on the natural environment.

"We believe a fine of this magnitude sends a very clear message to the company that it needs to take seriously its environmental responsibilities.

"Thames Water says it has learned lessons and we'll be watching closely to make sure it acts on these."

Rose O'Neil, water policy manager at WWF, added: "This ruling and fine is welcome and needs to focus the minds of all water companies and their shareholders as it is not an isolated issue.

"This case highlights the need for water companies to invest in solutions that manage the whole local catchment area such as green infrastructure and sustainable drainage systems.

"They simply can't continue treating our rivers as their dumping ground."

But River Thame Conservation Trust chief executive Louise Bowe said she was disappointed with the amount Thames Water had promised to help the trust bring the river back to life.

She said: "We’ve developed good working relationships with Thames Water’s current staff and we want to work closely with them going forward to put the River Thame right.

"To that end, we’re disappointed at the size of the Environment Fund they have announced.

"It will take years to properly renew the Thame catchment and other affected areas and £1.5millon is far too little when you consider that this will be spread around the six areas where pollution occurred.

"Large fines may act as a deterrent but, as they go to the Treasury, they are of no benefit to the environment.”

Ten largest fines to be brought by the Environment Agency against water utilities:

  • Thames Water £20.3 million March 2017
  • Southern Water £2 million December 2016
  • Yorkshire Water £1.1 million April 2016
  • Thames Water £1 million December 2016
  • United Utilities £750,000 March 2015
  • United Utilities £600,000 June 2016
  • Yorkshire Water £600,000 January 2016
  • Southern Water £500,000 November 2014
  • Severn Trent £480,000 September 2015
  • Severn Trent £426,000 July 2016