A legal right to access environmental information, which activists and researchers have used to uncover the unlawful release of raw sewage into UK rivers, could be lost as part of the UK’s legal disentangling from the European Union. Without these Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs), it could be much harder to hold water firms and government bodies to account, campaigners have warned.
“The public have a right to understand what’s happening in their local environment and many of our representatives rely on EIRs for localised data on sewage discharges in their areas,” says Louise Reddy at Surfers Against Sewage, a group that monitors water quality at more than 400 river and coastal locations in the UK. “The scrapping of EIRs would be very problematic – we should be taking more steps towards transparency, not three steps back.”
EIRs are similar to the UK’s freedom of information law, which allows anyone to request information held by public bodies. Crucially, the environmental version requires some private companies, such as water firms, to respond to requests as well. This was only clarified in 2015, when environmental group Fish Legal took water companies Yorkshire Water and United Utilities to the European Court of Justice after they refused to disclose data about their release of raw sewage into water bodies.
Fish Legal won the case after arguing that water firms were public entities and so legally bound to release environmental information via EIRs. The ruling meant water firms were forced to release data. “It was a long, hard fight,” says Penny Gane at Fish Legal. “I never thought we’d have to revisit it.”
EIRs also helped bring wider public attention to sewage overflows in 2021 when Peter Hammond, a retired mathematics professor at University College London, was able to uncover details on the widespread release of raw sewage into UK rivers by water firms. The data released under the legislation showed that the scale of raw sewage discharge by water firms was 10 times higher than the UK’s Environment Agency had previously estimated. “I couldn’t do any of the work that I’ve done without EIRs,” says Hammond.
But now, the existence of EIRs is threatened by the Retained EU Law Bill, which is currently going through the UK’s parliament and will see thousands of EU-derived laws expire at the end of 2023 unless they are specifically kept in UK law. Gane fears EIRs, which are an implementation of an EU-wide directive on access to environmental information, will be overlooked by officials who have a mammoth task of sifting through the various laws encompassed by the bill.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty around the actual bill itself – we just don’t know what the thinking is behind closed doors,” she says. “There’s absolutely no transparency around how this process is working and yet they’re moving very quickly.”
Other environmental groups are also worried about losing this key tool. “The Retained EU Law Bill has the potential to weaken our legislative framework, impacting on the future health of our rivers,” says Tessa Wardley at the Rivers Trust. The loss of EIRs would weaken access to data that helps third parties hold polluters to account where the government and regulators are failing in their enforcement duties, she says.
EIRs may not be the only casualty of the great Brexit untangling. “The Environmental Information Regulations are amongst thousands of laws that are vital in protecting our environment,” says Sandy Luk at the Marine Conservation Society. The sheer enormity of the task involved in executing the Retained EU Law Bill means that there are likely to be negative impacts, she says, “either because laws are accidentally sunsetted because they weren’t caught in any list, or because amendments will be suggested that weaken the existing legal framework.”
“The water industry supports calls to protect key legislation threatened by the Retained EU Law Bill that safeguards our rivers, seas and drinking water quality, including Environment Information Regulations,” says a spokesperson for industry body Water UK. “Water companies remain committed to complete transparency, regardless of the government’s decisions about the bill.”
“We are unequivocal that reviewing our retained EU law will not come at the expense of the UK’s already high standards,” says a spokesperson for the government’s Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). “As with all retained EU law, the accessibility of environmental information is being carefully considered.”
But Gane says she wants more than platitudes from Defra on this issue. “We have a groundswell of support behind us now and we will do everything that we can to make sure that the right to access environmental information is protected.”