Yorkshire Water has paid a record £1 million to environmental and wildlife charities after polluting a Harrogate watercourse, the Environment Agency said.
The utility giant was found to have breached its environmental permit with an unauthorised sewage discharge from Hookstone Road combined sewer overflow, which polluted Hookstone Beck in 2016.
The Environment Agency said Yorkshire Water submitted an Enforcement Undertaking – a voluntary offer made by companies or individuals to make amends, proposing the £1 million donation to environmental charities to carry out improvements in the local area.
It paid £500,000 to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and £500,000 to Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.
The Environment Agency said it is the largest Enforcement Undertaking it has ever accepted from a company.
Yorkshire Water also completed a £1.85 million sewer network upgrade in the area as part of the enforcement terms.
It came after the Environment Agency launched an investigation when it received a report of pollution in Hookstone Beck in August 2016.
Investigating officers traced it to the overflow at Hookstone Road combined sewer overflow, which has an environmental permit that allows a discharge into the beck when the storm sewage facility is full due to rainfall or snow melt.
But it had become blocked and Yorkshire Water was not alerted due to faulty telemetry equipment.
The investigation found that almost 1,500 fish had been killed and water quality was affected for more than a mile and a half (2.5km) downstream.
Meanwhile, a series of further blockages and discharges took place in the following months.
Investigators used devices called sondes in the river to measure the impact of ammonia and an assessment of Event Duration Monitoring data that revealed the company was in breach of its environmental permit.
Claire Barrow, Environment Agency area environment manager in Yorkshire, said: “We always consider enforcement options on a case-by-case basis, and Enforcement Undertakings allow companies to put right what went wrong and contribute to environmental improvements and outcomes.
“This significant £1 million civil sanction will be invested back into the local area to enhance the environment for people and wildlife.
“The Environment Agency investigation also led to significant improvements to the sewer network in this area to prevent repeat incidents and ensure future compliance with environmental requirements.”
Water minister Robbie Moore said: “This record penalty paid by Yorkshire Water demonstrates that those who damage our natural environment will be held to account.
“Our Plan for Water is all about delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement right across the water sector – and this penalty for Yorkshire Water demonstrates that we will take robust action when required.
“Our Plan includes scrapping the cap on civil penalties by introducing unlimited fines and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences – from breaches of storm overflow permits to the reckless disposal of hazardous waste.”
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust will use the payment in North Yorkshire for new and improved homes for wildlife, mainly on its wetland reserves, including Ripon City Wetlands and the River Tutt at Staveley Nature Reserve.
Meanwhile, Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust will develop a programme of improvements along the River Nidd.
A Yorkshire Water spokesman said: “This incident was initially caused by a plank of wood that shouldn’t have been in the sewer network and took place seven years ago.
“We acted quickly to stop the pollution but understand incidents of this kind are distressing and, when things go wrong, we understand we have a responsibility to make it right and to prevent these things from happening at all.
“Unfortunately, it has taken seven years to reach an agreement with the Environment Agency to donate funds to local wildlife charities that will directly benefit Yorkshire, but we are pleased to have finally provided funds to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.
“We’re committed to protecting the environment and our procedures and processes have evolved significantly since 2016, contributing to a halving of pollution incidents in the last five years.
“Following this incident in 2016, we spent almost £2 million to improve the sewer network in the area to prevent repeat issues.”