EMPLOYEES at a major water company have been accused of obstructing data on waste spills in rivers and on beaches.

This follows revelations in June that the company agreed to pay £126 million in penalties and payments to customers after a series of “serious failures”.

These were found during an investigation by independent watchdog Ofwat.

Three staff members at Southern Water were found to have blocked the Environment Agency as it attempted to investigate a series of raw sewage spillages.

Ellen Lees is the campaigns officer at We Own It, a campaign group which wants water to return to public ownership.

She said: “The revelations today that Southern Water staff have been accused of obstructing the Environment Agency from collecting data in an investigation into sewage pollution are shocking.

“But they reveal a wider problem with water privatisation.

“For far too long private water companies have been treating our environment and their customers with contempt – pumping raw sewage into our rivers and ripping off the public.

“Enough is enough. Privatisation of water has failed. It’s time to bring our water into public ownership.”

An Environment Agency spokeswoman confirmed a criminal investigation into the company has been launched and is currently under way.

She said: “We began a criminal investigation into Southern Water in March 2016.

“This was due to suspected permit breaches at a number of its sites, and revealed issues that required separate consideration by Ofwat.

“The Environment Agency’s criminal investigation into the environmental aspect of the alleged breaches continues.”

A Southern Water spokesman responded to the claims that its employees had obstructed the Environment Agency’s investigation.

He said: “In early 2017 the Environment Agency alleged that the company and a small group of employees did not co-operate during some unannounced visits by the EA to certain Southern Water sites in 2016.

“Throughout the court hearing in early 2017 the staff members who were individually prosecuted alongside the company were fully supported and continue to be.

“They were independently represented in court and all were given an absolute discharge with some later overturning their convictions on appeal. The company was found not guilty.

“This was an EA process case and Southern Water co-operated fully throughout which is fully demonstrated in the judge’s findings.

“This is not connected to the findings in Ofwat’s recent investigation for which we are deeply sorry and have agreed a comprehensive agreement which encompasses penalty, reparation for customers and assured improvement.”