Barry Hopton of atg UV Technology gets to grip with the EU Directive.

“Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.” Hence Directive 2000/60/EC, more colloquially known as the Water Framework Directive or WFD. It has the rather grandiose objective of “establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy.” Nobody can deny this goal: of course protecting our water resources to ensure the wellbeing of our delicate ecosystem and our own public health is a matter that must come above all commercial considerations. The logic behind managing water on the basis of catchment areas is unassailable. The best model for a single system of water management has to be by the natural geographical and hydrological boundaries rather than according to administrative or political boundaries. But how will this be implemented in practice? What will happen after Brexit? In fact, what is the future for the water industry?

The concept of organising water management into regions based on river catchments is far from new: the Duke of Richmond introduced an Act of Parliament in 1878 promoting the idea. Then the 1973 Water Act created the ten Regional Water Authorities (RWAs), each responsible for drinking water treatment and supply, sewerage, sewage treatment and disposal, land drainage, river pollution and fisheries. Of course, one of the worst – if not the worst – polluters of rivers is the sewage treatment works and the RWAs failed signally to perform both as poacher and gamekeeper. That was one of the reasons for their demise in 1989 under Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation. Another reason was a lack of investment due to central government’s tight fiscal controls and the high levels of debt inherited by the RWAs. The purpose of any privately owned company is to make a profit for its shareholders but, even with Ofwat’s regulation, it still rankles with the average water consumer that the water companies do just that. Jeremy Corbyn has promised to re-nationalise the industry, which sounds like a return to the failed RWA model.

Existing legislation such as the IPPC Directive, the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the Nitrates Directive have already gone a long way to improve river water quality, but many groundwater sources suffer from a legacy of contamination. Ensuring that water quality is protected means monitoring and the EU defied the “Watch List” of 17 substances to be sampled at least annually across the EU. The Watch List includes insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics and natural and synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The UK’s Chemicals Investigation Programme has been set up to identify sources of these chemicals in sewers, assess the contribution to surface water concentrations of trace substances made by sewage works discharges and determine the effectiveness of treatment processes in removing them. Phase 1 of the programme identified a number of priority substances including polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), plasticisers and heavy metals. Undoubtedly more “emerging contaminants” will be added to this list as awareness and analytical techniques improve.

Water treatment technologies have, for many years, been developed in response to the ability of analytical chemists to identify, and then reduce the level of detection of, trace contaminants. Already there are many sorption processes capable of removing trace heavy metals and pesticides, and membrane processes also have a part to play, however these effectively only concentrate the contaminant into a waste stream that can have its own disposal problems. Trace organics like EDCs and PAH can be completely destroyed by oxidation using a combination of ozone or hydrogen peroxide with UV radiation, then again these techniques are expensive to operate. If oxidation is incomplete it is possible to form by-products which may be as toxic as the original contaminant but remain unlooked for and, consequently, undetected. No single technology is going to be a universal panacea and, whilst it represents a major opportunity for technology providers, we must not lose sight of the fact that implementation at waterworks or sewage works scale will be extremely costly. Whilst “water is not a commercial product like any other” it must not become too expensive for consumers or public health will suffer. It therefore fitting for us to try to minimise the presence of these emerging contaminants in our sewers but this will prove difficult if not impossible. What is, perhaps, of most concern is whether Brexit will herald the abandonment of a programme which will, inevitably, be expensive nevertheless ultimately essential for a sustainable future. The WFD is undoubtedly full of good intentions, but we must beware that it does not become the road to Hell.

atg UV Technology, Genesis House, Richmond Hill, Pemberton, Wigan, Lancashire WN5 8AA

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