It might not be making many headlines anymore but the ramifications of last October’s sewage spill into the River Crane are still being felt. In this guest post, twickerati reader and Twickenham resident Brian North provides a reminder of what happened and an update on the situation.

In October 2011, Thames Water had a bit of an accident. Not a leaky water main or a collapsed manhole cover but a full scale environmental catastrophe.

The River Crane, its rivers and tributaries and hotels and properties around Heathrow airport were flooded with thousands of gallons of raw sewage. The Crane Valley, an area of special environmental interest, was devastated. Everything in the rivers and tributaries leading all the way from Heathrow to the Thames was affected. Crustaceans, invertebrates and thousands of fish were killed. Bird life abandoned a thriving eco-system – now wiped out and reduced to a stinking, flowing slurry in less than 48 hours…

It was caused by simple mechanical failure. Maintenance on a sewer in the early hours of Sunday 30th October 2011 went terribly wrong. A huge barrier had been closed to allow Thames Water’s teams into the tunnels to (ironically) inspect conditions in the sewer. When they had finished and tried to reopen the barrier they couldn’t. A critical component had failed and there was no backup. Despite frantic efforts a three tonne metal dam was stuck and right behind it tens of thousands of gallons of sewage was rising. There was no way of opening the barrier despite frantic efforts to try to reduce the scale of the impending disaster. As Heathrow and West London awoke on that Sunday morning thousands of showers were taken, baths emptied and toilets flushed and it was either flood Heathrow completely with stinking raw sewage or let it overflow directly into the River Crane. The rest is history.

On Wednesday 11th July 2012 a public meeting was organised by FORCE – Friends of the River Crane Environment – and attended by representatives of Thames Water. It was an opportunity for members of the public to ask questions about what happened and why it happened. The mood of the meeting was tense and people were genuinely upset, angry and vocal. Thames Water’s representatives seemed remorseful at the damage their company had caused and answered questions as best they could. The Environment Agency is prosecuting Thames Water who have admitted liability and are likely to be fined — although it is important to state that no date for the court case has been set. Thames Water have offered to help put right the damage by way of a donation of £400k over five years. They also pledged to learn from this tragic mistake and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again — either in the Crane Valley or elsewhere.

The trouble is that environmental catastrophes have happened before on Thames Water’s watch. Who is to know if it won’t happen again? Their reaction could be construed as a classic case of the door being bolted after the horse has fled. Although of course in this case the door couldn’t be unbolted, which is fairly ironic. Although not very funny.

One last point to note. This awful ‘summer’ weather we are having is the best possible short term recovery aid for the river. Flushing it through and filling it with clean fresh water will help to start the long slow recovery process. Something to smile about while hiding under your umbrellas? Maybe.

Brian North is a Twickenham resident and member of Force.

River Crane

* Brian North on Twitter
* FORCE (Friends of the River Crane Environment)
* Thames Water