Campaigners take Environment Agency to court over microplastics spread on land

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The campaign group, Fighting Dirty, has launched legal action against the Environment Agency (EA) and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, over a lack of testing for microplastics and harmful ‘forever chemicals’ in sewage sludge spread on land. The group announced the action on 2 November. 

In documents filed at the High Court, the group argue that the EA acted unlawfully by abandoning a previous commitment to legislate on toxic sewage sludge by 2023 – a problem they have acknowledged presents a risk to human health. 

The EA regulates the use of sludge made up of processed sewage solids, industrial effluent, and surface water run-off, which is sold to farmers by water companies and spread on agricultural land as a fertiliser. The rules governing the spreading of sewage sludge have not been updated since 1989.  

A report commissioned by the EA in 2017 and uncovered by Greenpeace found English crops contaminated with dangerous POPs like dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health”. 

In 2020, the EA published a strategy for safe and sustainable sludge use stating that the “do nothing option is unacceptable” and that regulations would be introduced by mid-2023, bringing testing and regulation of sludge into the Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR).  Yet, in an updated strategy published in August 2023, this deadline was removed, and no further timescale was provided for action.

European farmland has been described as the biggest reservoir of microplastics in the world. The University of Cardiff and University of Manchester found that UK soils have the highest level of microplastic contamination amongst European countries, with 500 – 1000 microplastic particles applied per square meter of agricultural land each year. The same study states that microplastics pose a significant threat to wildlife as they are easily ingested and can carry contaminants, toxic chemicals and hazardous pathogens, potentially impacting the whole food chain.

Commenting on the case, campaigner and journalist, George Monbiot said: 

“It strikes me as a classic example of an issue that almost everyone has ignored, which turns out to be more important than many of those over which we obsess. The total failure of effective regulation in this case suggests that there is little ecological difference between dumping raw sewage into rivers – as water companies routinely and disgracefully do – and spreading contaminated sludge over farmland. Worse in fact, as the sludge poisons the soil before seeping into waterways. The rules are at fault. By failing to update them, and by suppressing and ignoring the evidence of its own officials, the government is in breach of its legal obligations to protect the living world and human health.” 

Georgia Elliott-Smith, an environmental engineer and business owner who successfully campaigned to force waste incineration plants to pay for their carbon emissions, said: 

“By removing the deadline for introducing regulations on the safe and sustainable use of sludge, the EA has effectively reverted to a ‘do nothing’ position – something they originally stated was unacceptable to protect human and environmental health. 

“Farmers are unknowingly being sold potentially highly toxic material to spread on their land, poisoning our soil, watercourses, and food, and we have no hope of a date when this situation will be resolved. It is unacceptable to be left in limbo like this.” 

Steve Hynd, Policy Manager at not-for-profit City to Sea added: 

“Microplastics are the hidden environmental crisis of our age. They’re buried meters deep in Antarctic sea ice cores, they’re found within the guts of marine animals inhabiting the deepest ocean trenches, and they’re found on the peaks of the highest mountains. Increasingly we know that they’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat and liquids we drink. The idea that we are spreading them directly onto farmland without regulation or control is horrifying. It represents a dereliction of duty from those that are meant to be regulating this sector.” 

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