‘We’re in a desperate situtation’: Campaigners protest against pollutants in River Ouse

The University of York Boat Club spoke of the ‘alarming’ effects of raw sewage in the river


Campaigners in York took to the streets on Saturday 10th February to protest against the dangerous levels of pollutants and sewage recorded in the River Ouse.

The protest, organised by activist group Extinction Rebellion, brought traffic to a halt as members chanted and displayed banners expressing concern for human and environmental safety and calling for water companies to act immediately.

Members of the march insisted water companies, including Yorkshire Water, urgently devise a clear plan to combat the problem and provide accountability for the direction of spending on the issue.

The University of York Boat Club have since voiced their discontent at the water quality of the river, which they use six days a week.

Reports of sewage spills and dangerously high levels of bacteria in the Ouse have caused detrimental risks, with campaigners at the protest insisting Yorkshire Water must “stop putting profits ahead of people’s health and wellbeing.”

Yorkshire Water, in an attempt to reduce the impact of storm overflows and subsequent levels of sewage in the Ouse, stated:” Our shareholders are supporting us to invest £180 million to make a step change in our performance in addition to the £147m we were already investing as part of our business plan.”

“By 2025, we’re hoping to reduce the number of times our most active overflows operate by more than 20 per cent on our 2021 baseline.”  However, many protesters argue a clear plan with transparent measures remains to be seen.

One member of the protest, Kath, told The York Tab that her son and his friends were “very ill for a really long time” with “gastroenteritis” after being in the river last year. ” She added: “When we get in the river we’re exposing ourselves to pollutants and we’re choosing to do that, but the ecosystem, the animals, the plants, they don’t get a choice. Yorkshire Water has got the choice to keep the river clean and it makes a decision everyday, every week, every month to prioritise other things, including shareholder profits.”

“When York lies under the ocean, you’ll take climate change seriously” chanted the campaigners. A clear call for more to be done, before it’s too late.

Campaigner Rocco, who “loves the River Ouse”, said, “Yorkshire Water isn’t doing enough. This has been mention many times but [it is] just not doing anything about it.” When asked what message he had for the Government he suggest a need to “bring in legislation to force water companies to clean up our rivers.”

He said he hoped that “Yorkshire Water respond and acknowledge that what they are doing is not good enough” and that it “comes up with a plan for what it is going to do. Hopefully they listen.” He concluded by saying, “Yorkshire Water, get your act together!”

Former York Councillor for Transport and Green Party politician, Andy D’Agorne, said: “A lack of treatment of our sewage and the impact on the environment and human health is something that in the 21st century, we shouldn’t tolerate”.

He continued that water companies “need to be more transparent about what they’re doing.” He added to this by saying water companies also “need to be clear about what the time scales are; what can be done in the short term, what can be done in the long term.”

“People have got sewage coming up through their drains” he adds, and “the government needs to take climate change seriously. The current Tory government seems to want to turn climate change into a political football, when everyone knows we’re in a desperate situation.”

Explaining that “the Green Party is very much pushing the message that we need to tackle climate change urgently”, Andy adds that claims suggesting the unaffordability of the investment are “nonsense”, instead arguing the investment would “create more jobs and regenerate the economy through investing in the infrastructure we need”.

Mr D’Agorne adds that there are “shameful profits being made by privatised water operators, the profits should be going into fixing the problems, not going to shareholders”.

The University of York Boat Club told The York Tab: “Flooding in York this year has been incredibly disruptive and it’s been alarming to watch as raw sewage bubbles up onto a public area only 100 metres from the facility we use six days a week.

They added: “We pride ourselves on leaving the river as we found it and even make an effort to clean our boats with safe products for the river so it is extremely disheartening to see a company making vast profits for owners in other countries by designing a system that pumps human waste onto the land we and the community enjoy.”

A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water has said: “Storm overflows operate to protect homes and businesses from flooding during periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall. We know the operation of storm overflows is an issue our customers care passionately about and we are investing £180m by April 2025 to begin reducing their operation across the region, including projects in York at Fishergate, which has been completed, and Coney Street in the coming months. Additionally, we have submitted plans to Ofwat for approval outlining a £1.3bn investment to reduce storm overflow discharges between 2025 and 2030.”

You can read more about how Yorkshire Water plans to protect the environment here.

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