'Never before in the history of Britain has so much been spent to clean up the environment,' says Northumbrian Water's environment manager Dr Chris Spray.
Around the 160km of the Northumbrian coast and estuaries, £800M is being invested over five years to cleanse sewerage discharges and meet the standards of the European Commission's Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the demands of the UK's Department of the Environment Transport & the Regions. It will change the regime of inshore waters which have been used as a place for disposing sewage since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Spray is concerned that removal of the nutrient from the sewage might have an unexpected effect on wildlife.
He says: 'Four years ago, we went to Durham University and asked: 'What is our impact on the environment?'.'
Wading birds inhabit the estuaries. Off the coast invertebrates live in the sea providing food for fish and hence birds. 'We asked Durham: 'What is the impact on inshore waters of taking out all this nutrient?'.'
Data on invertebrates, fish and birds is being measured. There is a detailed programme centred on Amble and Coquet Island. 'The bottom line comes in 2001 when we expect nutrients to reduce. We don't know what will happen to the birds,' says Spray.
Not entirely in jest, he adds that if the result is severely detrimental to wildlife it might be possible to use the output from Northumbrian's new sewage sludge pelletising plant. 'You could take the pellets from the works and spread them on the beach.'
'Dirty industry? Glad to be of service.' That is the message from Northumbrian Water which is keen to attract inward investment on the Tees where it has plentiful supplies of water and the technology on hand to cleanse the effluent from the dirtiest factories.
'We have said to companies: 'We'll take your effluent and take a problem off your mind',' says Northumbrian investment unit manager Steve Coverdale. The Tees is notorious for its dirty steel and chemical works but their polluting power is becoming a thing of the past, thanks to the huge investments made by Northumbrian at Bran Sands.
Bran Sands is replacing three old sewage treatment works. It began to be effective when flows into the first one at Portrack, Stockton, were transferred via a new pipeline and tunnel in June 1997, lifting dirty effluent blight from 12km of the river. The other superseded works are Middlesbrough's at Cargo Fleet and the Easton Macerator on the south bank of the Tees near Bran Sands.
Treatment at Bran Sands includes ultra-violet disinfection, added at a late stage at a cost of £9M. This was a response to the then tightening standards insisted on by the Department of the Environment Transport & the Regions which decided that allowances should no longer be made for high natural dispersion areas.
Vast covers over the tanks at the works contain odour and reduce the impact of the plant on a local atmosphere that is already working hard to disperse industry's noxious vapours. Northumbrian has also located its new regional sludge treatment works on the site so that ships and tankers can deliver material from the whole region for drying, pasteurisation and pelletisation.
The plant serves 300,000 people but adding the industrial effluent will take this to the equivalent of a 3.5M population. Stage one has been in operation since February last year and the second stage has to be ready by the end of December 2000. So far, Northumbrian has won three contracts to deal with industrial effluent. The South Bank coke ovens' characteristic is a very high ammonia load. Wilton chemical works produces pure terrapthallic acid and Dupont's Nylon factory turns out similarly challenging fluids.
Some specific treatment is done on site before the effluent is discharged to the main treatment works and buffer tanks are used to smooth processing between the release of batch loads from the industrial plant to the continuous processes of Northumbrian's works.
Political, planning, conservation and sustainability are tackled head on by Northumbrian Water. The company prefers to thrust itself into the media spotlight on environmental issues rather than finding itself dragged there.
Running a reception for Members of Parliament in conjunction with Tyne Tees Television at a Labour Party conference in the south coast resort of Bournemouth might seem an odd thing for a company in the North East to do. But it makes sense when the Prime Minister's constituency is on your territory along with those of 17 other Government Ministers or MPs and just two opposition members. It is part of Northumbrian's continuing effort to make sure it is putting its point of view across to important decision makers.
To make sure it does not trip up with sensitive planning issues, Northumbrian has a comprehensive geographical information system charting every site of special scientific interest, nature reserve and known archaeological relic. 'It helps with planning to avoid them,' says the company's environment manager Dr Chris Spray. 'If we think we have a problem we go and talk before it becomes an issue.'
This upfront approach is typified by Howdon sewage treatment works which was to be located partly on a semi-derelict piece of land that was important as a nature conservation site. From the start, Northumbrian approached the project on the basis of developing part of the site into a wetland nature reserve.
Incidentally, it was able to reuse excavated clay within the site for landscaping and thus save disposal costs.
The company owns 22 large reservoirs and actively promotes a biodiversity programme in conjunction with societies and action groups which might normally be expected to be found pestering a water and sewerage undertaker to sharpen up its standards. Every site owned by the company that is larger than 1ha is carefully surveyed to see what lives on it.