Thames Water has been fined a record £20m after pumping nearly 1.5 billion litres of untreated sewage into the River Thames.
The company admitted water pollution and other offences at sewage facilities in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Fish and birds died following the spills in 2013 and 2014.
The £20.3m fine is the largest penalty handed down to a water utility for an environmental disaster.
Judge Francis Sheridan said the scale of the problem was such that it must have been known up the chain of command.
He told Aylesbury Crown Court it was inconceivable that all the individual managers made the same decisions to run pumps at half levels, calling it a “shocking and disgraceful state of affairs”.
He added: “It should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions.”
Bourne End Marina, Little Marlow
The spills occurred at four Thames Water Utilities Ltd sewage treatment works, at Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, as well as a large sewage pumping system in Littlemore in Oxford.
Hundreds of fish were killed and sewage spilled into nature reserves, while nappies and other debris went into the Thames and the adjoining River Thame.
Manholes also overflowed and fewer dragonflies were reported.
Environmental damage was caused in the riverside towns of Henley and Marlow.
Company director Richard Aylard said: “We have failed in our responsibility to the environment and that hurts both personally and professionally, because we do care.
“We’ve also failed in our responsibility to our customers who pay us to provide an essential public service all the time, every day and not just some of the time, and we apologise for all of those failings.”
Judge Sheridan said the company had a “history of non-compliance” and that managers had ignored warnings and “risks identified by employees and others”.
Staff recorded a “failure waiting to happen”, he said.
Robert Davis, from the Environment Agency, called it some of the worst pollution he had witnessed.
He added: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The river was visibly polluted bank to bank with sewage.
“It was grey, it was lifeless, it had fish floating along it, and was polluted as far as the eye can see both downstream and upstream. It was really sad to see such a beautiful river so badly polluted.”
Farmer Michael Woodford built a 3km [1.9 mile] fence to make sure his cattle did not access the water at the time.
He said: “We were very concerned about the welfare of our cattle.
“This type of pollution is very harmful to livestock and could be fatal to animals.
“It was shocking because the river was a haven of wildlife. There were always fish and crayfish in there. The whole of the wildlife was being destroyed by all this pollution.”
Chief executive of Thames Water Steve Robertson said he deeply regretted the spills but claimed things at the company had improved since it had increased staff in key roles.
“We understand our huge responsibilities to the environment, have learned from these serious events and continue to invest at the rate of around £20m a week on continually improving our service to our customers and the environment.”
The company has 21 days to pay the fine. The previous largest fine handed down by a court was £2m, given to Southern Water in December after sewage was discharged into the sea near Margate.
Anne Brosnan, chief prosecutor for the Environment Agency, said: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works.
“Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the Environment Agency as required by water company industry protocol.”