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Post-Punk Legend Leads Fight for Clean Water as Britain’s ‘Sewage Czar’

For Britons of a certain age, Feargal Sharkey will be best known as the lean, raw and energetic lead singer of the Undertones, a band that burst onto the country’s music scene in the late 1970s in a vibrant postscript to the era of punk rock.

But as he prepared recently to address protesters in Whitstable, on England’s southeastern coast, most of his fans were no longer asking about the hits that had made him famous, like “Teenage Kicks” or, as a solo artist, “A Good Heart.”

Instead, they were talking sewage.

Britons have reacted with growing fury to revelations that the country’s privatized water companies routinely release household waste and runoff rainwater into rivers and onto beaches, and Mr. Sharkey has lent his voice and support to local campaigns across the country that are demanding action — a cleanup of contaminated rivers and coasts, and greater scrutiny of both the water companies and their regulators.

As a sign of just how much the issue has angered voters, one recent opinion survey showed that more than half those polled said it will influence how they cast their ballots in the next general election, expected next year. That is not good news for the Conservative government that has been in power the past 13 years while Britain’s sewage scandal has grown.

On the train to Whitstable, an hour’s ride outside London, the former rock star said he hoped to push those poll numbers yet higher, while also noting that he will be happier when he can focus more on his music. “I do not want, on my grave, the epitaph ‘sewage czar,’” he joked.

Nonetheless Mr. Sharkey, 65, seems to be getting some adult kicks from being the scourge of the water firms, harrying their bosses on social media and reminding Britons of the dividends given to their shareholders.

Demonstrators at Whitstable. Britons have reacted with growing fury to revelations that the country’s privatized water companies routinely release household waste and runoff rainwater into rivers and onto beaches.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

When one firm, Southern Water, reassured customers that its discharges were 95 percent rainwater, Mr. Sharkey challenged its boss, Lawrence Gosden, to drink a glass, promising to donate 1,000 pounds ($1,200) to charity if he did so. Mr. Gosden has yet to accept the wager.

Most of Britain uses a combined sewerage system shuttling both rainwater and human waste along the same pipes. When rainfall is heavy, the water firms are sometimes permitted to discharge some of this into rivers or the sea to avoid the pipes being overwhelmed, which could mean sewage backing up and flooding roads and homes.

But some firms may be spilling sewage on days without rain. In May, the water companies apologized for not giving sufficient attention to overflow spills, and promised change, said Water UK, a trade association representing them. And government ministers now acknowledge that the level of sewage spills is unacceptable and have promised to force water firms to spend £56 billion ($67 billion) to tackle the issue.

Earlier this month, the Office for Environmental Protection, a public body, said sewage releases in England exceeded 825 times a day last year. Discharges can lead to higher — and possibly illegal — concentrations of waste entering waterways, including E. coli.

Mr. Sharkey was raised a Roman Catholic in Derry, Northern Ireland, during decades of bloodshed known as the Troubles. His given names — Seán Feargal — were chosen by his parents to commemorate Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon, members of the Irish Republic Army, who were killed while attacking a Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in 1957.

His father was a trade unionist and Labour Party member, and his mother was deeply committed to Irish unity. The family home was a gathering point for activists.

As a youngster, his distinctive voice helped him win singing competitions and provided his entree to the Undertones. The band’s lucky break came in 1978 after it sent a recording of the irresistibly catchy “Teenage Kicks” to John Peel, a BBC radio presenter famed for discovering new bands. He played it twice on the same U.K.-wide show.

Despite the conflict around them, the Undertones were mostly nonpolitical, railing at the travails of teenage life rather than the traumas of the Troubles.

A demonstrator in Whitstable.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

That was deliberate, Mr. Sharkey said, because the fans who came to listen to the band in its early days at the Casbah bar in Derry, Northern Ireland, had to pass a British military checkpoint outside the venue.

After someone had done that, the last thing anyone needed “was the Undertones to start getting down your throat and start shouting at you about bombs, bullets and barricades,” Mr. Sharkey said.

Mr. Sharkey — who now lives in London with his wife — quit performing in 1991, embarking on a new life in the commercial side of the music business and later as a regulator at a British communications authority. The Undertones are still touring, but with a new singer.

Changing course was the right decision, he said, because his recurring nightmare was “waking up one day to discover I was the wrong side of 50 with a receding hairline and a ponytail, deluding myself that I would be back on Top of the Pops next week.”

But of all the causes he could have gotten behind, why pick this fight with the water companies?

Growing up in Derry, Mr. Sharkey chose fly fishing as an after-school activity. Several decades later, he joined England’s oldest angling club, Amwell Magna Fishery, only to discover that so much water was being extracted from the River Lea by the local water company that it was slowly dying.

That prompted him to link up with environmental groups across the country, though he worried it might be a lost cause. He recalled thinking “‘Feargal, you could end up a sad middle-aged bloke sitting in your back garden howling at the moon on a Saturday night, nobody might care about this.’”

But thousands did.

Mr. Sharkey at the Whitstable protest. “You’ve been lied to, you’ve been cheated, you put your trust in the system — that’s been abused,” he told the audience.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Mr. Sharkey’s fiercest criticism is reserved for Ofwat, which regulates the water companies, and the government’s Environment Agency. Neither are “up to it,” and Britain has suffered a “lack of political oversight and engagement, and a failure of regulation,” he said.

Exploiting his music fame, Mr. Starkey has been able to make common cause with supporters from very different backgrounds, including Arthur Charles Valerian Wellesley, the ninth Duke of Wellington, who has pressed for water quality measures in the House of Lords.

“I said to him,” Mr. Sharkey recalled of one meeting, “‘Charles, it’s just occurred to me this government is so utterly inept that they have actually managed to put the son of an Irish republican family and the Duke of Wellington on the same side of an argument — that’s a hell of an achievement.’”

When Mr. Sharkey first left performing, public speaking sometimes made him anxious. Then, scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at a radio industry event, he had a revelation as he approached the podium: “It’s a stage, it’s a microphone, it’s an audience: You know how to do this,” he told himself.

At the protest in Whitstable, that performer’s adrenalin kicked in for the duration of his fluent, rousing, five-minute speech.

“You’ve been lied to, you’ve been cheated, you put your trust in the system — that’s been abused,” he told the audience gathered by the group SOS Whitstable, assembled on a grassy bank in front of the ocean. “You’ve been misled, you’ve had your environment polluted and destroyed.”

Then he added a positive note: “You are on the cusp of victory.”

The Whitstable beach. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Among several hundred people listening was Ruth Westbury, once a regular swimmer here who has been in the water just once this year.

“You don’t know whether you can go out and swim, you don’t even know whether you go can let your dogs in the water,” she said. “Our restaurants, our bars and cafes are all really suffering because nobody knows whether the water is safe.”

As for Mr. Sharkey, she described him as “bit of a hero,” but, most of all, someone unafraid to “say it like it is.”

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