The UK Environment Agency has asked its staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events because they don’t have enough money to investigate, according to a leaked internal report.

The decision on so-called Category 3 and 4 incidents means that events such as agricultural pollution or hazardous dumping by businesses may not be properly investigated. The decision infuriated local groups and NGOs.

An Environment Agency staff briefing, released in November and viewed by the Guardian and the Ends Report, says there is management support for “no response to unfunded environmental incidents at low and no impact ”, also known as Category 3 and Category 4 incidents.

The leaked document also alludes to the agency’s frustration with ministers and the money set aside for its work. He says the EA leadership team has “made it clear to the government that you get the environment you pay for.”

The exceptions to the rule will be pollution incidents caused by a regulated site or water company, the briefing says, although it does not explain how it will determine the source or severity of an incident if it does not. is not being monitored or under investigation.

Ignoring the large number of pollution reports that arrive each year will have benefits, according to the agency’s briefing, including “a reduction in overall effort devoted to incidents that pose the lowest risk to the environment,” an increased effort on “fee-funded regulation”, more room to prioritize high-risk incidents, “increased consistency of response and service for customers”, and reduced disruption to agents during and outside of working hours.

In a presentation from the Environment Agency, also seen by The Guardian, on what is known internally as the Incident Triage Project, the agency says it is currently responding to more than 70,000 incidents every year, and the number continues to increase.

However, data from the agency’s national incident recording system shows that while 116,000 potential incidents were reported to the agency in 2021, only 8,000 were addressed, and that number increased from 12,000 in 2016, when 74,000 potential incidents were reported.

“We can’t keep trying to do what we’re not funded to do; we have neither the money nor the resources ”, indicates the presentation medium. “We are in an unsustainable position. Our incident responders are feeling increasing pressure, which affects the resilience and well-being of staff. “

If staff hear of a Category 3 or 4 incident that does not involve a water utility or regulated site, they are told, “Do not justify reporting, call the site or add details. Stop the report. Sample response letters have been created for agency staff in anticipation of complaints.

An Environment Agency official, who declined to be named because staff were warned against speaking to the media, said: “Many category 2 incidents start with 3 through 3. ‘to be taken care of’ and that a Category 3 example could be an ‘2 km oil or sewage spill into a river’.

A second officer, who also wished to remain anonymous, said it would be “impossible” to determine what level of incident had occurred without visiting him. EA’s response to the pollution had been waning for some time, they added, and “unless there are dead fish floating all over the place,” an incident would not be attended by the agency.

The agency’s commitment to customer service says the regulator saw its environmental incident response budget cut last year and in addition to reducing responses, it will no longer provide feedback on actions taken to fight against pollution events.

This follows many years of reduced grants for the agency. However, the government gave the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its agencies an additional £ 4.3bn in the last spending review in October 2021. A snapshot of the settlement from the Environment Agency is expected this year.

Mark Lloyd, Managing Director of Rivers Trust, called the move a “appalling scandal”. “Category 1 and 2 pollution incidents obviously have a very serious impact on the environment, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of incidents are in lower categories, and they are the ones that kill rivers by a thousand cuts, ”he said.

Lloyd said the agency needed “resources and political support to take strong action in all cases of pollution if our rivers are not to continue to suffer from rampant pollution and a continuing decline in pollution. quality… It is absolutely essential that there is a credible threat of law enforcement. for all pollution incidents if we are to restore our rivers to good health for the next generation.

According to Penny Gane, practice manager at Fish Legal, ignoring pollution incidents risks people giving up on reporting them.

“A lot of our members gave up reporting pollution incidents some time ago because they didn’t think the agency was interested,” she said. Any further drop in reports “will paint a much rosier picture than the reality of the deterioration of our rivers and it will be much more difficult for the agency to mount a case for more funding.”

Gane is also concerned about how the reduction in responses will be handled. “Without witnessing an incident, how do you know if it is caused by a regulated site or a water company? In practice, they speak of agricultural pollution, which the Environment Agency has identified as the main threat to water quality and the reason for water body failures in England.

Rivers activist Feargal Sharkey sees the move as more cynical. “The obscenity is that the Environment Agency has reduced its own staff to nothing more than political pawns in a cheap game of Whitehall politics. It’s unjustified, it’s unfair, it’s incompetent, ”he said.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said, “We are focusing our incident response efforts on pollution incidents that pose the greatest risk to the environment.

“Our incident triage project examines how we can best use our resources and maximize environmental benefits. As we continue to witness the most serious incidents, we are focusing our efforts on our regulatory activities that prevent incidents from happening in the first place. Information from incident reports helps us plan and prioritize our work to protect the environment.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The government recognizes the importance of protecting the country’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly.

“Defra and its agencies received an additional £ 4.3 billion in the last spending review in October 2022 so that we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. The Environment Agency plays an extremely important role in this area and will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental damage to account. “

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