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Coronavirus: Environment Agency update

The Environment Agency’s priority is to protect people and the environment, and to support those we regulate during the coronavirus pandemic.

2 EA staff members working 2 metres apart to comply with social distancing

Environment Agency work continues in line with government guidance, including social distancing

We are aware communities, businesses and the environment rely on our services. This includes the advice and guidance we offer, our regulatory work which continues to protect the environment, people and wildlife from harm, managing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion, and other roles.

We will continue to review the situation in light of further advice from the government and will update you accordingly. In the meantime, we remind you to check the government’s guidance at www.gov.uk/coronavirus.

Our staff

We remain fully operational, with the majority of our staff working from home. Our remaining frontline teams will be active, where necessary, on the ground tackling priority issues such as flood risk and pollution. All staff, wherever they are working, are following PHE guidance to reduce their risk of either transmitting or contracting coronavirus.

Maintaining, operating and repairing our assets is essential to ensure they work when required. Our work will continue where it remains safe to do so and activities comply with PHE advice.

We are also ensuring our contractors are aware of site and people restrictions and are following the correct procedures.

Offices

The Environment Agency has closed most of its offices. Four offices remain open for staff whose work is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home:

  • Horizon House - Bristol
  • Quadrant 2 - Sheffield
  • Templeborough - Rotherham
  • 2 Marsham Street - London

Our flood defence work

Our flood defence work continues in line with PHE guidance and where it is safe. We are ready to respond to flooding. During coronavirus we continue to maintain and operate our flood and coastal defences to ensure they protect people and property from flooding. We’re also maintaining our assets that support public water supply, industry, infrastructure, food production and the environment.

Where work continues, we have ensured that everyone involved has been trained on social distancing and will not put anyone at risk. If the work cannot be done safely, the work will stop.

We are also still carrying out inspections and repairs to flood defences damaged by spring storms. We are prioritising our work that has the most impact in terms of protecting lives and livelihoods, including prioritising the most at-risk communities so they can remain resilient. If repairs to major infrastructure assets are disrupted by the impact of coronavirus, we will where possible put in place temporary mitigation for the risk, pending a full repair.

All our work is impacted by the controls we and government have put in place. This is likely to mean that completion dates for new projects will slip and other key activities may take place at less regular intervals. We are keeping communities informed of any delays and the action that we are taking to minimise them.

Flood warning service

Continuing to protect lives and livelihoods through our flood warning service remains fundamental to our work as the nation continues to deal with the effects of coronavirus. In order to protect our flood warning service during this difficult time, we have made some minor changes to the service.

In order to safeguard this essential service we will be focussing on the most important warnings, where flooding is expected or where there is a risk to life. We will continue to issue our lowest level of flood warnings – flood alerts - where there is a need to take action but will temporarily stop issuing them where they indicate that there is a very low likelihood of flooding taking place. Our teams will continue to work around the clock to ensure that people have the early warning and safety advice they need to stay safe.

Our regulatory role

Our priority is to protect people and the environment, and to support those we regulate. We continue to carry out regulatory visits to sites that could cause serious environmental harm where appropriate. For all sites, we are developing ways to continue to regulate during this period, using alternative regulatory approaches such as increasing desk-based compliance activity and remote ways of working.

We continue to work closely with businesses and industry to help them meet their legal requirements. We have clearly set out our approach to regulation and enforcement during this difficult time, and have introduced new temporary regulatory position statements (RPSs). RPSs are nationally-applicable public statements that, provided certain circumstances and conditions are met, allow specified activity to be carried out without complying with a particular regulatory requirement. RPSs allow a degree of flexibility while still ensuring regulatory standards are maintained to protect people and the environment. They include clear conditions regarding standards that must be adhered to.

Across the country, our teams continue to undertake investigations into environmental offending and prepare legal cases. We will consider the appropriate regulatory response to any unavoidable non-compliance in accordance with our policies and guidance on regulation and enforcement.

Coronavirus is not an excuse to operate illegally. We make clear in our approach to regulation and enforcement during the coronavirus that we expect operators to take all reasonable steps to comply with regulatory requirements using contingency plans to help them comply.

We continue to enforce regulatory requirements, following the government’s guidance on social distancing. This includes liaising with courts and, wherever possible, continuing with any sentencing cases still outstanding using remote technology to conclude our legal action.

We’re also continuing to work with the police to share intelligence about criminal activity and take action against those breaking the law.

We absolutely recognise the added financial strain coronavirus is putting on businesses and have written to all our customers to invite them to contact us to discuss payment options if they experience difficulties.

Applying for a permit

During the Coronavirus pandemic, we are following government advice and our permitting staff are working from home.

We’re currently receiving over 700 applications every month, and we’ve contacted all customers with an application in process to update about our working practices.

Whilst we’re making every effort to maintain our permitting service, it’s inevitable that there will be some disruption as we work in unprecedented circumstances. We are taking slightly longer than normal to determine permit applications in some of our permitting sectors, but are continuing to adapt our working to reduce these wherever we can and as quickly as possible.

A very small number of customers submit applications via post, unfortunately while our buildings are closed we’re unable to access these applications. All post is being stored securely until we return. We’re advising customers to resend their application via email if posted after 18 March 2020 if they can. We’re sorry to customers impacted by this.

We’re prioritising plans for accessing the small number of postal applications, and will process complete applications based on the date they were received. However, to avoid delay we advise customers to submit applications via email.

Bathing water sampling

Continuing to protect people and the environment remains fundamental to our work as the nation continues to deal with the effects of Coronavirus.

Routine bathing water sampling was suspended before the start of the 2020 bathing season as the Environment Agency followed government guidelines to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Following the latest government advice on easing lockdown restrictions, we are actively planning to restart our bathing water monitoring to help inform our pollution prevention work, understand trends in bathing water quality and provide some water quality data to the public this season.

As part of our preparations we need to consider what coverage of monitoring is possible, taking into consideration the latest social distancing guidelines to protect both our staff and members of the public.

We are working towards a restart date of the end of July.

The pause on routine sampling has not impacted bathing water quality, remains of a very high standard in England. Regulatory work continues and pollution prevention measures such as conditions in permits for discharges affecting bathing waters still apply.

Our daily pollution risk forecasting service is the best way for bathers to get an up to date risk assessment of conditions before bathing. This year the system has been upgraded providing even more accurate forecasts of when a temporary reduction in water quality is likely. For information on pollution risk forecasts and warnings, visit www.gov.uk/quality-of-local-bathing-water.

Angling and our fisheries

In line with updated government guidance, restrictions on angling have been eased as of Wednesday, 13 May. Further guidance is available on the page lifting of restrictions on recreational-fishing. Anglers must fish legally, including having a valid fishing licence and adhering to relevant byelaws.

Fishing licences continue to remain on sale.

Meanwhile, we continue prioritising our response to reported incidents of serious harm to the environment, subject to local conditions. We are working to achieve the right outcomes for people, public health, and fisheries legislation.

Illegal fishing, pollution and incidents that harm the environment should be reported to our 24-hour hotline on 0800 80 70 60, and serious breaches of the coronavirus restrictions should be reported to the police on 101 or via the website of your local police.

Our waterways

People have been enjoying trips out on the water but must keep to the latest government guidelines, social distancing and check for any local changes with the navigation authority.

Everyone should follow government guidance on social mixing outside of household groups. The government confirmed that there will be no specific restrictions on waterways businesses from 4 July. This will help boat owners and hire boat businesses including private leisure craft, commercial hire boats and hotel boats. Boating operators are responsible for conducting a risk assessment drawing on the relevant sources of government guidance on COVID-19, available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19

The Environment Agency is the navigation authority for rivers and waterways across the south and east of England. There has been a high level of interest in water sports and waterside activity since restrictions were lifted on 1 June. We welcome more members of the public wanting to enjoy the water environment. Both powered and unpowered craft need to register with the navigation authority.

To adhere to social distancing there are some changes to the way Environment Agency staff typically provide services and some things may take longer or take up more space than normal, for example at locks and doing routine maintenance. At the majority of sites we are still maintaining 2-metre social distancing to reduce the need for either customers or staff to take additional precautions. Local information on signs or from staff will provide more detailed advice on new ways of navigating rivers and canals safely. We recommend that all boaters wear lifejackets and allow more time for your journey.

The Environment Agency has written to boating and navigation groups regularly throughout the Coronavirus pandemic to provide updates on lockdown restrictions and changes on their waterways: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environment-agency-waterways-coronavirus-covid-19-update.

Water safety

As the government eases restrictions on movement caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the public has been warned to keep safe around rivers and canals. For advice about the dangers of wild swimming, follow guidance from police, Public Health England, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Their messages are clear: vigilance can save lives, and water-related accidents can be avoided by knowing how to stay safe.

The Environment Agency, which manages many locks, weirs and bridges across England, wants people to remember the hazards under the water in rivers while spending time with friends and family. People should not to jump or dive into water and stay away from weirs, locks and pipes. There can be unseen hazards in the water, cold-water shock can affect even strong swimmers on warm days and social distancing must be continued to protect the public, staff and boaters. Keep a look out for boat traffic. Boaters, especially on larger vessels, can find it very hard to spot swimmers.

Restarting your private sewage treatment plant

We have provided guidance to a range of industry bodies covering hospitality businesses including pubs, restaurants, hotels, camping and caravan sites and theme parks confirming the need for private sewage treatment plants to be made ready to be used again following a period of shutdown or low flows.

It comes as many pubs and other hospitality businesses are making plans to re-open next month.

Sewage treatment plants use living microorganisms in biological treatment processes to remove pollutants from sewage effluent before it is discharged into the environment. The sudden restart of a sewage treatment plant or an increase of flows into it following a relaxation of COVID-19 business shutdown rules will very likely result in the discharge of poor quality effluent unless steps are taken by operators of sewage treatment plants to prepare them for increased flows beforehand.

Environmental impacts must be minimised when operators restart their sewage treatment plants. Those who discharge poor quality effluent risk being in breach of their environmental permits or the General Binding Rules if their discharges cause pollution of surface water or groundwater.

Operators need to take steps to ensure that their treatment plant is able to operate effectively as flows into it increase after their businesses reopen.

Those unaccustomed to restarting, should seek technical advice and support from:

  • whoever normally maintains their sewage treatment plant
  • the manufacturer or supplier of their treatment plant
  • a competent sewage treatment plant maintenance engineer

As well as ensuring that their sewage treatment plant is ready to receive increased flows, operators must also check that any pre-treatment equipment such as fats, oils and grease (FOG) traps are ready to be used again. Operators should also avoid sending excessive amounts of chemicals and cleaning products to their sewage treatment plant as they can inhibit and harm biological treatment processes. They should also ensure any contaminated drainage from washing and cleaning does not drain to surface water sewers, water courses or groundwater or cause pollution.

Operators of premises served by their own sewage treatment plant wanting to dispose of waste beer should find other means of disposal. They should seek further guidance from the British Beer and Pub Association and refer to the waste hierarchy which is available on GOV.UK.

Billing

The Environment Agency recognises that some customers will be particularly affected by the measures to restrict the impact of the virus. We will consider requests for payment plans if customers experience difficulties paying bills on time. Income from fees and charges ensures the Environment Agency can continue to provide an appropriate level of regulation and services for our customers to ensure the environment and people are protected.

Customer contacts

During this pandemic the Environment Agency continues to protect people and the environment, working alongside our partners. Please report any pollution incidents on 0800 80 70 60 and stay #floodaware.

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre

Email: enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk

Telephone: 03708 506 506

PO Box 544 Rotherham S60 1BY United Kingdom

Published 2 June 2020
Last updated 3 July 2020 + show all updates
  1. Section on bathing water updated.

  2. New section on water safety added.

  3. Section on waterways updated and new section added for restarting private sewage treatment plants.

  4. Updates added to permit applications, angling and waterways.

  5. First published.