Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive at The Environment Agency
From the beginning of the Whaley Bridge incident, the Environment Agency has worked tirelessly with the emergency services and the reservoir’s operator, the Canal & River Trust (CRT), to protect the town. I was in Whaley Bridge today (8 August) to thank all involved and ensure we press on with the next stage of recovery and repair work.
We are delighted that the residents of Whaley Bridge are now able to return to their homes and businesses. This follows a thorough assessment of the stability of the dam and was the collective judgement of the police, emergency services, CRT and Environment Agency. It was made on the basis that water levels in the reservoir have decreased substantially and robust arrangements are now in place to ensure they remain low in the event of further heavy rainfall.
The reservoir has been weakened by heavy rainfall, and work is needed to restore the very high safety standards required by law. This will be carried out by the CRT under our supervision as the regulator.
Our reservoirs across England have an excellent safety record, with the last fatal failure being nearly 100 years ago.
Dams in England are regulated by the Reservoirs Act 1975, which sets out stringent conditions for the operation of reservoirs to ensure high levels of safety. They are designed and operated in a way to ensure the likelihood of failure is incredibly low.
Responsibility for ensuring the safety of reservoirs lies with their operators. Our job, as the regulator is to ensure they comply with the legal safety requirements. We monitor compliance at all 2,072 large raised reservoirs in England and employ a range of enforcement options to address non-compliance. These can include:
- Enforcement notices requiring reservoir owners and operators to complete outstanding safety works.
- Requiring operators to appoint Government-appointed supervising and inspecting engineers.
- Powers to force entry to conduct surveys, inspections and physical works.
- Direct intervention to carry out safety measures where an operator has not done so.
- Powers to force entry to land without giving notice and take any appropriate measures to reduce the risk or mitigate the effects of a failure. We have done this in the past.
Inspections and Enforcement
We routinely visit reservoirs across the country to assess risk, monitor progress and serve enforcement notices requiring operators to complete specific actions. Our absolute focus is to maintain the safety of these reservoirs and we will not hesitate to prosecute operators if they fail to take action and cause a threat to life. We recently used these powers to carry out safety work at five reservoirs where the risk was deemed to be unacceptable.
Reservoirs with the capacity to threaten human life in the event of a failure are designated Category A and subject to the most stringent inspection and supervision requirements. All Category A reservoirs are monitored by a supervising engineer who reports every year on any potential safety issues and are subject to a statutory inspection every 10 years. The Toddbrook Reservoir at Whaley Bridge is a Category A reservoir.
When a reservoir is inspected the engineer will recommend the action that needs to be taken to ensure its safety and the deadline by which this action must be taken. The recommended actions and the deadline are the responsibility of the operator, not the Environment Agency. Those recommendations may include measures to be taken in the interests of safety (MIOS). Having a MIOS does not mean the reservoir is unsafe and does not indicate an immediate threat to life. There is no reason to assume that there is a heightened risk of a dam failure at any reservoir with outstanding MIOS.
MIOS indicate that a robust inspection and supervision process has identified something of potential concern by an expert civil engineer, who sets an enforceable deadline for it to be addressed by the reservoir operator. MIOS can include administrative requirements such as the preparation of an on-site safety plan. We regularly assess all reservoirs with overdue MIOS and take appropriate enforcement action.
Currently there are 15 reservoirs out of 2,072 across England that are Category A and have overdue MIOS.
Every reservoir with an overdue MIOS has an Environment Agency enforcement officer actively using our powers to manage the operator. To be clear, we will not allow a reservoir to continue to operate if we believe it poses a danger to the public.
So far, we have prosecuted two reservoirs and have used our legal powers to step-in and carry out physical works ourselves at five reservoirs where a risk was unacceptable.
Following the partial collapse of the dam slipway at Whaley Bridge, we have contacted the operators of all large reservoirs asking them to check that their reservoirs have not suffered any damage after the recent heavy rainfall. We will also be checking all the reservoirs that we own and operate ourselves.
Events at Whaley Bridge demonstrate how reliant many parts of our lives are to the impacts of the weather, demonstrating how crucial it is for all infrastructure to be fit for the future. We recently consulted on a draft strategy for the nation’s flood risk, which considers the challenges of today’s infrastructure in a changing climate.
The main focus of our work in flood and coastal risk management has always been public safety - none more so than with our nation’s reservoirs. We will continue to work with reservoir operators and engineers to maintain this country’s leading safety record.
I personally would like to thank all of our hugely dedicated staff, as well as the emergency services and military personnel, who through their swift and decisive action saved the homes and lives of Whaley Bridge’s residents.