Environment Agency stepped up activity in the run-up to Brexit

The number of investigations into businesses launched by the Environment Agency increased by 12% from 5,518 in 2018 to 6,164 in 2019, says RPC, the City-based law firm.

The increase comes as the Environment Agency seeks to crack down on environmental breaches by businesses, with water, waste management and agriculture identified as key focus areas for the agency.

RPC says that the Environment Agency significantly stepped up activity in the lead-up to the UK's exit from the EU, amid fears that environmental standards could slip following Brexit.

The rise in the total number of investigations is driven by the water industry, which saw investigations reach a record high of 1,807 in 2019, up from 1,638 the previous year. The water sector accounted for 29% of the total number of investigations instigated in 2018/19.

RPC says the increase in investigations may be related to incidents of extreme flooding in 2018, in areas such as the West Midlands and parts of the South West, following Storm Emma. Flooding can lead to an increase in pollution when sewage systems are overrun, causing pollutants to contaminate water supplies.

River dumping is another source of water pollution, with a World Wide Fund for Nature study showing that just 14% of rivers in England and along the Welsh border are close to their natural state.

The Environment Agency has set ambitious targets to tackle water pollution, with a view that by 2027, 75% of rivers in England will meet European standards.

The Government recently announced the creation of a new task force, the Joint Unit for Waste Crime (JUWC). This is an initiative between HMRC, the National Crime Agency and environmental regulators to crack down on waste crimes, such as fly-tipping.

The taskforce has been set up in response to increasing incidences of businesses dumping hazardous materials on private land and waste being falsely labelled so it can be exported abroad.

Steven Aitken adds: "In the wake of this rise in investigations by the Environment Agency, businesses will need to ensure that they avoid falling foul of environmental laws in their operating practices, otherwise they may be subject to prosecution and liable to pay high fines."