Is it safe to swim around Margate?
I have been asked this question a lot lately. The answer I believe is “Yes”, but we should be concerned about the actions of Southern Water, given the current investigation into them by the Environment Agency.
More also needs to be done on the public communications following heavy rainfall storm releases and untreated wastewater in relation to bathing, and the long term suitability of the current pumping station infrastructure.
Summary of recent events
On Thursday 17 June wastewater was released via the emergency outfall at Foreness Point into the Margate beach area. According to the Environment Agency, this released “unscreened and untreated sewage” into the sea. On both the Southern Water and Environment Agency website it showed that a release had happened and that swimming should be avoided.
On Wednesday 23 June, water samples were taken by the Environment Agency at Margate main sands and Walpole bay area; the samples showed no issues and “due to the number of tidal cycles there was a notable reduction in risk”. On the same day Thanet District Council (TDC) in collaboration with the Environment Agency lifted the swimming restrictions around the coast.
Second discharge following heavy rain
On Sunday 27 June following heavy rainfall, Southern Water’s Beach Buoy website recorded a discharge from the Margate waste water pumping station. This according to Southern Water was a “Combined Sewer outfall (CSO) release through the sea outfalls which is commonplace after a rain event”.
Southern Water has a permit to release screened waste, that is with solids removed, mixed with large amounts of water during a CSO and this is released either 600 m or 2 km out to sea. Southern Water says that “current information suggests this would not have had a significant impact on water bathing quality”.
However, Environment Agency officers are currently investigating whether the discharge was compliant with the permit that Southern Water have for this site, and what was released was “still under investigation” as of 30 June 2021.
Local lido drained
On Monday 28 June, Walpole bay lido was drained following the first wastewater release on 17 June. This was paid for by Southern Water, and the work was done under supervision from TDC engineers. No trace of debris was found according to TDC.
Further water testing data can be expected to be published in the coming days on the Environment Agency website.
Actions required from Southern Water
The following actions are required in my opinion:
- The Environment Agency website should include CSO events when they give their guidance on bathing, especially so, as Southern Water recommends no swimming for 24 hours following CSO events, which can occur after heavy rainfall. Following this TDC may decide they also want to publicise no swimming events for 24 hours after a CSO event.
- TDC needs to be involved in the ongoing Environment Agency investigation into whether the CSO release on 27 June complied with Southern Water’s permit.
- Given that heavy rainfall events are due to increase, given man-made climate change, work should be done to assess whether a new, fit-for-purpose pumping station needs to be built to deal with these increasing events and stop polluting the sea.