A water company has said it is “determined” to deliver change after new figures showed an increase of more than 75 per cent in the number of hours sewage was released into Blackburn with Darwen’s waterways in 2023.

Data from the Environment Agency shows sewage from storm overflows was flowing into water bodies in the borough for 14,047 hours in 2023, during 2,799 separate spills.

All of these were from facilities operated by United Utilities.

This was up from 7,843 hours recorded the year before when there were 1,895 spills in the area.

Both United Utilities and the Environment Agency said wet weather was to blame and the former added plans are already underway to tackle storm overflows in the North West.

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Mark Garth, wastewater services director at United Utilities, said: “We have seen one of the wettest years on record in the North West and that had contributed to an increased number of storm overflow operations compared to the previous year.

“Whilst the current system is designed to activate during rainfall, we understand and share people’s concerns and the need for change, which is why we are proposing a £3bn programme to tackle storm overflows in the North West between 2025 and 2030.

“It is going to take time to re-plumb the North West, but we have already started and the figures show we are moving in the right direction.

“In 2020 we completed a £164m upgrade at Blackburn wastewater treatment works – which members of the public will be able to visit later this summer. It’s thanks to projects like this that, even with increased rainfall, we’re now seeing a 15 per cent reduction in storm overflow operations compared to 2020.

“We’re already making an early start on our proposed £13.7bn business plan – not only will this bring further improvements to the environment, we expect this huge programme will boost the North West economy with an additional 7,000 jobs.

“We are determined to deliver the step change that we all want to see.”

Meanwhile, England saw a massive rise in both the number of spills and how long sewage was discharged for.

Last year, 3.6 million hours were recorded – with less than 1.8 million hours in 2022 – while the number of spills rose from 301,000 to 464,000.

The Environment Agency said this rise may be partly due to the country experiencing its sixth-wettest year on record.

But James Wallace, chief executive of campaign group River Action, said water companies have “run amok” with their customers’ money.

“The scale of the discharges by water companies is a final indictment of a failing industry,” he said.

Cllr Jim Smith, Blackburn with Darwen Council’s executive member for environment and operations, said people had ended up with a “second-class service” at the hands of United Utilities, adding there “needs to be far more investment in the infrastructure and less profiteering.”

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A spokesperson for the industry body Water UK said: “These results are unacceptable and demonstrate exactly why we urgently need regulatory approval to upgrade our system so it can better cope with the weather.

“We have a plan to sort this out by tripling investment which will cut spills by 40 per cent by 2030 – more than double the government’s target.

“We now need the regulator Ofwat to give us the green light so we can get on with it.”

The overflow figures were described as "disappointing" but "sadly not surprising" by the Environment Agency’s director of water, Helen Wakeham.

She said: "We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight."