Britain could be fined millions of pounds for dumping raw sewage into waterways, in a new European Court of Justice ruling.

The exact amount of the fine is yet to be decided. It relates to offences as long ago as 2003 in which sewage plants had dumped sewage into local waterways.

The plants in question are at Whitburn in Wearside, and at Beckton, Crossness and Mogden treatment plants in London.

Under a 1991 Directive (91/271/EEC), no European country may permit untreated sewage to enter waterways.

Over the succeeding years, the European Commission put pressure on Britain to address the problem, but it failed to do so. While the UK admits that the frequency of spills had lessened, they had by no means ended.

Britain argued that occasional spills due to high rainfall were permitted. The Court has judged that this could only be acceptable in exceptional circumstances and not with the regularity seen at these sites.

Its ruling adds that Britain was not using the ‘best technical knowledge not entailing excessive costs’ (‘BTKNEEC’).

“The UK has failed to fulfill his obligations under the directive," the judgment says.

"A member state may not plead practical or administrative difficulties in order to justify non-compliance with the obligations and time limits laid down by a directive. The same holds true of financial difficulties, which it is for the member states to overcome by adopting appropriate measures".

The London sewer system frequently discharges raw sewage into the River Thames when high rainfall is too much for the Victorian tunnel system.

Thames Water is constructing a £4bn 'super sewer' tunnel underneath the Thames to solve the problem, but meanwhile sewage continues to be occasionally dumped.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor