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United Utilities faces Cumbria flood questions

United Utilities (UU) was this week facing the prospect of legal action from Cumbrian people who claim it released water from a reservoir, worsening the effects of the November floods.

Law firm KJ Commons & Co is acting for a group of people affected by the floods and claims United Utilities released water from its Thirlmere Reservoir.

The reservoir’s outflow St John’s Beck ultimately feeds into the river Derwent, which flows through Cockermouth and on to Workington, the towns worst hit by the floods.

The firm has requested a series of documents from UU. It is seeking to determine whether water released from Thirlmere either intentionally or through spillway overflows, worsened the crisis.

Counter-defence

United Utilities maintains that it acted in agreement with the Environment Agency, and that its actions did not contribute to the flooding.

The law firm has requested information including details of maintenance and repair records, flood planning, and the water levels and pump activity leading up to the floods.

A KJ Commons & Co spokesman said UU has acknowledged its information request and told the firm that any legal action will be “vigorously defended”.

“We do not believe that UU deliberately exacerbated the flooding.”

Philip Green, UU

So far UU has supplied no detailed information.

Thirlmere reservoir had been overflowing the dam spillway since 27 October following heavy rainfall.

UU had been releasing water into the outflow throughout October and November, and continued doing so when severe rainfall was forecast on 18 November.

On 20 November, the reservoir’s main abstraction outlet which takes water to the water supply network was closed off due to water turbidity caused by a landslip into the reservoir the day before. The closure protected drinking water supplies in areas as far away as Manchester, and meant that 220M extra litres per day overflowed the spillway.

UU’s management of the reservoir was called into question after two Workington residents told local MP Tony Cunningham that the floods may have been worsened by flows from Thirlmere.

MP steps in

Cunningham wrote to UU chief executive officer Philip Green demanding an explanation. Green’s response has formed the basis of KJ Commons & Co’s investigation.

In his letter, seen by NCE, Green says UU discussed the situation with the Environment Agency after receiving a severe weather warning, and that the Agency agreed with its action.

The decision to close the main abstraction outlet was also taken “in full consultation and agreement with the Environment Agency,” and after the water level had started to subside, says the letter.

The releases into St John’s Beck made no material difference to the outward flow as the same volume would have flowed over the spillway anyway, Green said. “We do not believe that UU deliberately, or indeed accidentally, exacerbated the flooding caused by the unprecedented amounts of rainfall,” he wrote.

In a letter to UU published on its website, KJ Commons & Co questions the means by which the water level at Thirlmere subsided on 19 November despite continued rainfall. It suggests that the severe rainfall was “entirely foreseeable and indeed forecast some days beforehand.”

The firm said it was asking UU to hand over the documentation voluntarily but that it would take legal action to obtain it if it is not supplied. If it concludes that there is a case to answer, the firm said it will commence proceedings for compensation.

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