Whitburn, UK – When Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s CK Group agreed to sell its 25% stake in the UK-based water company to New York-listed investment giant KKR, the investment was a major breakthrough in Asian finance. It was enthusiastically received around the world.
News of the billion-dollar deal sparked outrage in parts of the UK run by Northumbria Water Limited (NWL).
NWL, which provides water and sewage services to 2.7 million people in the North East of England and is jointly owned by Li’s CK Hutchison, CK Asset and CK Infrastructure, faces backlash over records of dumping untreated sewage into the region’s waterways. doing.
The company has been fined £780,000 ($896,000) for environmental violations since 2021 alone, and last month slashed customer bills by £150m ($172m) for failing to respond to pollution. It is one of 11 UK water companies that have been ordered to reduce their target.
“Ultimately I think this will be the biggest scam ever given to the British people. NWL laughing all the way to the bank. Jazeera.
Latimer, who has been fighting the NWL since 1996, lives near the NWL’s drains and will have a record 820,000 tons of untreated sewage (equivalent to 325 Olympic-size swimming pools) near his home in 2021. said to have been discharged into the sea.
As privatized monopolies with secure assets to rent and a captive customer base, UK water companies such as NWL have long been considered a safe bet for international investors, including those in Asia. It has been taken.
However, a highly publicized sewage pollution scandal in the UK received widespread media attention, sparking public outrage and political outcry.
As a result, the UK’s regulatory and political environment is changing rapidly, posing new risks and the potential for significant reputational damage for Li, one of Asia’s richest tycoons, and his CK Group. increase.
The 94-year-old Hong Kong-based tycoon, who has been hailed by Greater China politicians as “Superman” for his influence and outstanding business and philanthropic achievements, officially retired in 2018. Mr Lee continues to be involved with the company as an advisor, attracting a decidedly cool reaction in the North East of England.
“Of that billion-dollar deal, zero will find its way here,” Steve Lovell, an anti-pollution campaigner and vice-chair of the Whitburn Neighborhood Forum, told Al Jazeera, noting that NWL is a shareholder. He accused them of “exploiting assets” for profit. At the expense of the local environment.
Specifically, Ravel, Latimer and their colleagues gathered evidence and shared it with Al Jazeera to help NWL illegally discharge sewage in violation of the Environment Agency’s permit and the European Court of Justice ruling dated 18 October 2012. It states that it shows that Findings as a formal complaint to the UK Environment Agency and Environmental Protection Agency.
NWL denies the allegations.
In response to Al Jazeera’s written inquiry, an NWL spokesperson said: “We have not violated the 2012 ECJ ruling. All discharges at Whitburn are being conducted in accordance with the Environment Agency’s permits.” CK Group in Hong Kong did not respond to a request for comment.
Local activists aren’t the only ones questioning NWL’s environmental record. Since late last year, the Environment Agency (EA) and the Water Services Regulatory Authority (Ofwat) have conducted an industry-wide criminal investigation into possible violations at wastewater treatment plants by five water companies, including NWL. The survey update, published in May 2022, was not encouraging reading for NWL executives.
“Initial analysis of the information collected to date confirms that there may have been widespread and serious violations of relevant regulations,” the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said at the time. .
Asked about the ongoing investigation into the company, NWL said the investigation would cover all sewage treatment plants.
“EA has not yet released its findings,” said a spokesperson. “We remain fully responsive to requests and the Board takes that responsibility very seriously.”
In its regular annual report on the sector, released in July, EA described the environmental performance of nine UK water companies, including NWL, as “worst on record”.
EA Chairman Emma Howard Boyd then warned that investors should no longer see the UK water monopoly as a ‘one-way gamble’, citing companies responsible for ‘the most serious incidents’. executives suggested they should be sentenced to prison.
NWL maintains a strong environmental record.
“In its most recent rating, EA gave our environmental performance the highest possible rating of 4 stars. We are proud of this and our industry-leading performance on pollution,” said spokesperson said.
In response to public concern, the UK government announced a new storm drainage plan in August. The plan says the water company will have to make “the biggest investment in environmental infrastructure ever – £56 billion ($64.2 billion) in capital investment by him over 25 years”. Incorporated into long-term plans to address stormwater drainage by 2050. ”
The stench emanating from the UK’s water sector comes at a difficult time for the UK’s CK Group and its sister companies.
A highly destructive industrial relations dispute at the UK’s largest container port at Felixstowe has provoked public criticism of the company.
Union leaders have accused the group’s port management arm, CK Hutchison, of not paying workers a fair wage despite making huge profits. Despite its claims of high environmental standards, NWL itself recognizes the business risks of environmental pollution, with the latest company report documenting cases that “could result in fines and reputational damage.” I’m here.
For CK Hutchison and its sister companies, which reported a net profit of HK$33.5 billion ($4.3 billion) in 2021, it is not clear to what extent management has been briefed on the scale of the UK’s sustainability risks.
The results of the criminal investigation are yet to be revealed, but the scope and harsh rhetoric of the investigation alone are unprecedented. Depending on the findings, significant changes could lie ahead for Li and CK Group’s investments in the UK water sector.