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Fighting Dirty granted High Court hearing to challenge Environment Agency over axing of pledge to test sewage sludge agricultural fertiliser for land contaminants

Environmental campaign group Fighting Dirty has been granted permission for a High Court hearing to challenge the Environment Agency (EA) over its decision to axe a commitment to have sewage sludge tested for microplastics and forever chemicals before it is spread on agricultural land as fertiliser.

Posted on 08 March 2024

A report commissioned by the Environment Agency (EA) in 2017 found English crops were contaminated with dangerous organic contaminants including dioxins, furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health” and physical contaminants including plastics that could result in “soils becoming unsuitable for agriculture”.

In light of those findings, in 2020 the EA acknowledged that the ‘do nothing’ option was not acceptable and committed to bringing the testing and regulation of sewage sludge from water treatment plants and septic tanks into the Environmental Permitting Regime by 2023.

The measure would require all sewage sludge to be tested for microplastics and forever chemicals before being sold to farmers by water companies for use as fertiliser.

However, by July 2023 no update had been published so Fighting Dirty contacted the EA to request information on when action would be taken. In its response, the EA informed Fighting Dirty that it had updated the Strategy for Safe and Sustainable Sludge Use web page. However, the updated strategy abandoned the commitment to achieve legislative change by the 2023 deadline and failed to replace it with an alternative date, thereby reverting to a ‘do-nothing’ position.

Now there is no timetable in place to enforce the removal of harmful chemicals from the 3.5 million tonnes of sludge that is spread on UK agricultural land as fertiliser every year.

Fighting Dirty, which comprises campaigners Georgia Elliott-Smith, George Monbiot and Steve Hynd, is represented by the environment legal team at Leigh Day.

Fighting Dirty has been granted permission for judicial review of the EA’s decision to remove the deadline for action and will argue in court that the body failed to consider mandatory relevant factors and to make sufficient inquiries, and that its decision not to replace the target date is irrational.

George Monbiot said:

“Thousands of hectares of prime farmland are being contaminated every year with a cocktail of toxic chemicals, with scarcely any testing or documentation. The government knows this is wrong, but it has serially failed to keep its promises to take action. Thanks to this regulatory black hole, no one knows what exactly is going onto the land or what the consequences might be. They could be very grim indeed. We are holding the government to account for this monumental failure to protect the public interest.

Georgia Elliott-Smith said:

“As an environmental professional, I know strong regulation is the key to directing investment and innovation towards tackling pollution. British industry is struggling with the government’s lack of direction, weak and contradictory regulations, under-investment, and a constant state of uncertainty. By bringing this legal action, we are simply asking the Environment Agency and Defra to deliver on what they promised several years ago and implement an effective, timely permitting regime that prevents harm to human and environmental health.”

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

“Today is a huge step towards regulating a major source of pollution, microplastics and toxic chemicals. The idea that we have been knowingly spreading this poisonous cocktail directly onto farmland without regulation or control is horrifying. It represents a serious dereliction of duty from those who are meant to be regulating this sector. To set a date to fix this and then to stick to that timeframe should be understood to be the very minimum of response to such an environmental disaster. Once again, we are chasing for the very minimum environmental regulation to be in place and enforced.”

Leigh Day solicitor Julia Eriksen said:

“The EA has known about the dangerous level of contamination that exists in sludge since 2017 and has acknowledged that doing nothing is not an acceptable option. In these circumstances, it is arguably irrational for the EA not to replace the target date. We are pleased that Fighting Dirty has been granted permission to advance this important case in the High Court.”

Fighting Dirty is crowdfunding its legal claim.

The judicial review hearing has been listed to be heard on Tuesday 9 July at the Royal Courts of Justice. 

Julia Eriksen
Climate change Environment Human rights Planning

Julia Eriksen

Julia is an associate solicitor in the human rights team

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