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Statement on the impact of nationwide driver shortage on the water industry

In response to the publication this week by the Environment Agency of a time-limited Regulatory Position Statement about water and sewerage company effluent discharges, and the current shortage of specialist HGV drivers, a spokesperson for Water UK, said

"We are currently experiencing some disruption to the supply in England of ferric sulphate, a chemical used at some drinking and wastewater treatment sites.

"This will not affect the supply of drinking water. As a precaution, however, we are monitoring the situation due to the use of ferric sulphate in some waste treatment works. We are working closely with government and our chemical suppliers to ensure disruption is minimised.

"This issue has arisen due to a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK. There is no shortage of ferric sulphate in factories; the issue is solely one of distribution."


What’s the current situation? 

Due to the national shortage of HGV drivers, monitoring by Water UK has identified some disruption to the distribution of ferric sulphate to a small number of water companies. This chemical is used to remove phosphorous at wastewater treatment plants. The situation is not expected to improve immediately, but all water companies are working closely with government departments and our supply chain to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

We have activated a number of our contingency planning arrangements, and the Environment Agency has issued a Regulatory Position Statement (RPS) on a precautionary basis. Currently, no company has made use of that RPS.

Is this an issue over chemical shortage or driver shortage? 

There is a national shortage of specialist HGV drivers able to move this chemical. There is no shortage of ferric sulphate itself.

What is ferric sulphate and why is it important for the water industry?

Ferric sulphate (Fe2(SO4)3)is used for the removal of phosphorous from wastewater. It is a brown-yellow liquid that is soluble in water at all concentrations. Companies remove phosphorus in order to reduce the level of nutrient emitted into waterbodies; higher volumes of nutrients from wastewater discharges and agriculture can lead to a reduction in dissolved oxygen levels within water.

Is ferric sulphate used in drinking water?

Ferric sulphate can be used as part of drinking water treatment. However, there have been no issues with ferric sulphate reaching drinking water facilities, and no issues are anticipated in future. There is no risk to the treatment of drinking water.

Has the water industry prepared for an eventuality of this kind? 

Yes, the water industry has effective and proven processes to manage incidents. Over the course of the last twelve months, we have run multiple national exercises with water companies, Government, regulators and consumer representatives to test plans for managing a range of scenarios, including supply chain disruption. Our national contingency plans for dealing with incidents are controlled by a ‘Platinum’ incident structure and supported by extensive preparations.

Water UK’s National Chemical Specialist Group (NCSG) supports our preparations and has been tracking this logistics issue for some weeks. This has involved close discussion between the water industry and chemical suppliers, haulage firms, trade bodies, Government, regulators and others.

All of these processes have been well-tested throughout Brexit and COVID-19, and successfully helped the industry to ensure customers received excellent service, even in the context of unprecedented challenges.

Which areas are affected – is it in particular areas/regions, or across the UK?

A number of water companies in England have experienced some disruption to their supply, but not all.

What are water companies doing to make sure supplies reach wastewater treatment plants?  

Water companies are working closely with suppliers, the government and regulators to find a solution. We are also in close touch with logistics companies with whom we have relationships for managing incidents of this kind.

We are looking at various options to improve the situation:

  • We are extending delivery hours to allow deliveries to be made outside of standard operating times;
  • We are looking at ways of making logistics more efficient, requiring fewer drivers;
  • We are exploring a number of options with government to relieve the national driver shortage.

What happens if we can’t resolve this issue, with the supplies not being able to reach the wastewater treatment plants. Are there any contingency/emergency plans in place?

The problem is the lack of specialist drivers, caused by a UK-wide shortage. The water industry isconsidering all available options, and remains in close contact with suppliers and logistics companies, including the use of additional drivers. We are continuing to work closely alongside government and regulators to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

Is there any environmental impact because of this issue?

This is expected to only affect a small number of sites across the country.  In those cases, there will be a reduced ability to remove phosphorus from wastewater discharges. Primary and secondary treatment of sewage - which removes solids and organic matter – will continue as before. Storm overflows are also unaffected.

All water companies must follow robust regulations and will continue to closely monitor effluent quality. There is potential for an increase in phosphorous levels at some isolated wastewater treatment works. This RPS does not apply to wastewater treatment works that are likely to have a high environmental or downstream abstraction impact. Companies will apply the joint Water UK and Environment Agency risk assessment for all other sites.

(last updated September 8, 2021)