Highway Run-Off and Water Pollution



The Environment Agency and Highways England have come under criticism in a recent article on toxic highway run-off: ENDS Report 3 March 2020.

The article, based primarily on reports from former EA employees, relates to an environmental issue which is not subject to the permitting regime or other direct regulatory oversight: pollutants entering waterways as run-off from highways and urban areas. Two overarching points are made: the EA and Highways England are not doing enough to prevent the pollution from taking place; and the EA is categorising serious pollution incidents as resulting from natural causes when they are in fact due to highway run-off.

ENDS reports that Highways England has identified 2,500 highway outfalls posing a risk to water courses. A study is said to reveal that some discharges are well above legal limits for copper, zinc, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Joanna Bradley, a former EA employee, told ENDS that very little is being done to limit the impact of these pollutants.

According to Ms Bradley, an EA project identified 79 outfalls discharging into rivers which, due to pollution levels, were failing to meet Water Framework Directive Standards. The project also identified high risk areas for pollution on local authority road networks. She claims that its recommendations were “brushed under the carpet”, that the EA has no plan to deal with the issue, and that the outfalls are causing very significant pollution every time it rains. While Highways England says that it is taking action, Ms Bradley says it is not moving fast enough. Another former EA and DEFRA employee agrees with Ms Bradley. He describes highway run-off as being “put in the too difficult” box by DEFRA because it was a long-term issue where no one person could be held responsible, required significant investment, and “wasn’t a vote winner”.

The second overarching claim is that the EA is classifying some of its most serious pollution incidents, involving major fish kills, as the result of natural causes when in fact the source is road and urban run-off. This is said to result in a lack of investigation, monitoring, enforcement and remediation. ENDS reports that, in 2018, there were 10 serious pollution incidents caused by run-off following rainfall, but which were recorded as due to natural causes. As well as Ms Bradley, other former EA officers have provided ENDS with similar comments, with particular criticism levelled at the EA’s monitoring system. One proposed solution is the installation of sustainable urban drainage systems which trap pollutants in reed beds/vegetation/sediments and slow flow down, but they can be expensive to fit retrospectively. There is also said to be a reluctance to use the limited land available to install them, and more generally to identify issues or monitor existing outfalls.

While the EA did not respond to the story, Highways England disputes the allegations. It points to guidance and standards published between 2006 and 2010 for new road projects, as well as a rolling programme of works to investigate, prioritise and address issues on legacy road projects (including a biotechnology system being tested in Devon).

Addressing diffuse sources of water pollution, such as urban and highway run-off, is not a straightforward issue. As noted in the article, the absence of a clear and enforceable permitting regime is one challenge. Another is the interplay with other policy areas. A December 2019 “fitness check” of the Water Framework Directive highlighted “better integration of water objectives in other policy areas such as […] transport” as one of the key changes needed for the Directive’s objectives to be met (Executive Summary, p.i).

The EA is undoubtedly aware of the issues arising from highway run-off. It is currently conducting a six-month consultation, ending on 24 April 2020, on its approach to protecting and improving water. One of the topics is pollution from towns, cities and transport. The consultation document records that it is not always easy to identify the source of pollutants such as urban run-off, which means that “using established approaches to controlling polluting activities such as through permits cannot as easily be applied because there may be more than one source of pollution” (p.2). While certain specific problems – such as misconnected drainage systems – are capable of being addressed, the EA clearly believes it necessary to work with other bodies on the wider infrastructure and planning issues. Its consultation document records that “[n]umerous sources of water pollution from towns, cities and transport means that no one body or organisation is responsible for addressing the causes of this pollution. The Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that water quality standards are met but its powers to influence urban and transport development and management are limited” (p.6).

Whatever the solution, the problem is likely to worsen with climate change: the impact of run-off is particularly acute when heavy rainfall follows periods of prolonged dry weather, as pollutants build up on hard surfaces and are flushed into surface waters in one go.

Given the recent ENDS article, the responses to the current consultation and the plan subsequently formulated by the EA should make for interesting reading.

Text references: paras 10.01-10.20.

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