‘Open sewers’: 25 Scottish beaches contaminated by faeces

At least 25 beaches across Scotland were contaminated with sewage in breach of safety limits in June and July, according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).

Sewers have overflowed and animal faeces washed into the sea, endangering the health of swimmers and surfers in Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, Argyll, Highland, Aberdeenshire, Fife and Lothian.

The worst polluted bathing water was at Saltcoats and Ardrossan in North Ayrshire, where a sample taken on 16 June recorded concentrations of faecal bacteria 30 times the safety limit.

High levels of pollution were detected at beaches at Portobello in Edinburgh, Seamill in West Kilbride and Nairn in Highland. South Beach in Ayr recorded two samples in breach of the limits.

There were also 14 bathing waters where pollution was undetectable or very low. These included four in Highland, four in Aberdeenshire and two in East Lothian.

Campaigners warn that coastal waters are being treated as “open sewers”, and demand more investment to tackle the problems. They say that public health is being put at risk.

Sepa stresses that beaches are cleaner than they used to be, but accepts “there is more to do”. Scottish Water says it has not had any “operational issues” but some bathing waters presented “complex challenges”.

Sepa samples 85 bathing waters every summer to check whether concentrations of two faecal bacteria, E Coli and intestinal enterococci, breach European safety limits. They can cause stomach, ear, nose and throat infections.

Sepa also issues daily pollution predictions for 28 bathing waters. Pollution is more likely after heavy rain, which washes animal faeces off the land.

An analysis of Sepa’s data by The Ferret has found that sampling so far this year detected faecal contamination above the limits at 16 beaches. At 13 of them Sepa mentioned overflowing sewers as a problem, with pollution from “agricultural run-off” also widespread.

“Bathing is not advised during or 1-2 days after heavy rainfall,” Sepa said. “This is due to the risk to bathers’ health from water pollution” which can originate from “human and animal sources”.

Sepa has recorded four, five or six samples at most of the bathing waters in June and July. Ayr’s South Beach has been sampled ten times.

At Ettrick Bay on the Isle of Bute, where there have been problems in the past with animal wastes from farms, Sepa recorded just one sample on 16 June. It contained levels of E Coli nine times the safety limit.

Other beaches recording samples in breach of the limits were Sandyhills and Dhoon Bay in Dumfries and Galloway; Prestwick and Irvine in Ayrshire; Lunderston Bay in Inverclyde; Luss Bay on Loch Lomond; Ruby Bay and Harbour Beach in Fife; and Belhaven in East Lothian.

Sepa predicted “poor” water quality at nine other bathing waters on 27, 28 or 29 July. These were in Nairn, Cruden Bay, Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Monifieth, St Andrews, Kirkcaldy and Eyemouth.

Scotland’s 25 polluted bathing waters

Bathing WaterStatus
Sandyhills, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Gallowaysample breach 5 July, predicted poor 29 July
Dhoon Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Gallowaysample breach 6 July
South Beach, Ayrsample breaches 9 June, 5 July
Prestwick, South Ayrshiresample breach 16 June
Irvine, North Ayrshiresample breach 9 June
Saltcoats/Ardrossan, North Ayrshiresample breach 30 times limit 16 June
Seamill, West Kilbride, North Ayrshiresample breach 13 times limit 16 June
Ettrick Bay, Isle of Butesample breach nine times limit 16 June
Lunderston Bay, Inverkip, Inverclydesample breach 16 June
Luss Bay, Loch Lomond, Argyll and Butesample breach 7 June
Central Beach, Nairn, Highlandsample breach 13 times limit 22 June, predicted poor 28, 29 July
East Beach, Nairn, Highlandpredicted poor 28, 29 July
Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshirepredicted poor 29 July
Aberdeenpredicted poor 28, 29 July
Stonehaven, Aberdeenshirepredicted poor 28, 29 July
Monifieth, Anguspredicted poor 28, 29 July
West Sands, St Andrews, Fifepredicted poor 28 July
East Sands, St Andrews, Fifepredicted poor 28 July
Ruby Bay, Elie, Fifesample breach 23 June
Seafield Beach, Kirkcaldy, Fifepredicted poor 28 July
Harbour Beach, Kinghorn, Fifesample breach 23 June, predicted poor 28 July
West Beach, Portobello, Edinburghsample breach 14 times limit 5 July, predicted poor 28, 29 July
Central Beach, Portobello, Edinburghsample breach 10 times limit 5 July, predicted poor 28, 29 July
Belhaven, Dunbar, East Lothiansample breach 12 July
Eyemouth, Scottish Borderspredicted poor 27, 28, 29 July
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

The campaign group, Surfers Against Sewage, criticised Scottish Water for contaminating some of Scotland’s most popular beaches. “Coastal waters and rivers up and down the country are being treated like open sewers putting both our health, and the health of the environment at risk,” said the group’s Amy Slack. 

“Pouring sewage into the water in this way puts us at risk of harmful bacteria and viruses such as E Coli, gastroenteritis, ear, nose and throat infection, and can even increase the risk of antibiotic resistance.”

She called for action to reduce the amount of sewage being dumped in the sea. “Governments must step up to place targets on water companies to stop the damage they cause, adequately fund regulators like Sepa to effectively monitor and enforce pollution, and ultimately overhaul an antiquated testing regime.”

The Marine Conservation Society suggested that all sewer overflows should be electronically monitored. “More investment is urgently needed to determine and rectify pollution sources at Scotland’s bathing waters,” said the society’s Rachel Wyatt.

“There should also be more emphasis on natural solutions, such as sustainable drainage, to reduce the amount of surface water entering sewers. Good quality bathing waters are not only essential to provide opportunities for recreation and protect public health, but also support coastal tourism.”

The Scottish Greens described beach pollution as “extremely concerning” and also demanded more investment. “Agencies need to treat this issue with the seriousness that a public health risk requires,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP

“We shouldn’t have to accept unsafe bathing waters, especially when the weather has been so hot and fewer people are holidaying abroad.”

Achmelvich beach (photo thanks to iStock/northlightimages)

Monitoring hit by Covid-19 and cyber attack

The coronavirus pandemic meant that not enough samples were taken in 2020 to derive new bathing water classifications for 2021. So instead Sepa carried forward the 2020 classifications.

As a result the same five bathing waters have been rated as “poor” for both years. These include Brighouse Bay and Rockcliffe in Dumfries and Galloway, as well three which have already registered sample breaches (Ayr South Beach, Dhoon Bay and Irvine).

For 2021 Sepa said there was “a revised programme of sampling” which would “produce an accurate reflection of the water quality over the season”. It was expecting to take 14 samples at most bathing waters, instead of 18 as in previous years.

The reduction was due to “practical limitations on labs and data handling systems” caused by the cyber attack on Sepa in December 2020, Sepa said. But the sampling was still “well in excess of the statutory requirement”.

Two inland bathing sites — Dores on Loch Ness and Loch Morlich near Aviemore — have so far had no samples recorded. Delays in updating Sepa’s website were attributed to the cyber attack.

The 14 bathing waters where pollution levels were very low included two in Fraserburgh, one in Dundee and one at Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre. For four Highland beaches rated as clean at Gairloch, Dornoch and Achmelvich, Sepa has recorded only one sample each.

Scotland's cleanest bathing waters

Culzean, Maidens, South Ayrshire
Machrihanish, Argyll and Bute
Gairloch beach, Highland
Sand Beach, Gairloch, Highland
Achmelvich, Lochinver, Highland
Dornoch, Highland
Tiger Hill, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire
Philorth, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire
Lido, Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
Balmedie, Aberdeenshire
Broughty Ferry, Dundee
Kingsbarns, Fife
Seacliff, East Lothian
East Beach, Dunbar, East Lothian
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency pointed out that more bathing waters were rated as “excellent”, “good” or “sufficient” than in 2015. The number classified as poor had also fallen from 10 in 2019 to five in 2021.

“The recent period of warm sunny weather across Scotland has resulted overall in continued high water quality which beach users have been able to enjoy,” a Sepa spokesperson told The Ferret.

“As with every year, samples vary and in June, a number of samples contained elevated levels of E Coli and intestinal enterococci following storm or heavy rainfall events. Signage and warnings were in place to notify members of the public.”

In cases where there hadn’t been heavy rain, Sepa had investigated “and did not identify any pollution source”, the spokesperson added.

“Whilst Scotland is making good progress, we recognise there is more to do to ensure all Scotland’s bathing waters reach environmental standards. We continue to work with Scottish Government and our key partner organisations to ensure continued improvement.”

The public water company, Scottish Water, also highlighted the link between heavy rain and pollution. “Scottish Water has carried out investigations at its bathing water-critical assets wherever we have been notified of a high sample,” said a spokesperson.

“We can confirm that, in all cases, Scottish Water assets have been operating as designed and that high results do not appear linked to asset operational issues.”

The company warned that sewers and drains could be blocked by people putting the “wrong items” down toilets and sinks. “Scottish Water will continue to work with Sepa to target improvements to deliver benefits at bathing waters where poor quality has been recorded,” the spokesperson continued.

“We continue to run our assets in a way that seeks to avoid impact on bathing water performance. Climate change, and more variable and extreme weather, present a challenge but we will continue to work with partner organisations to improve bathing water quality where required.”

According to Scottish Water, some beaches have “complex challenges” with local watercourses being contaminated by various sources. It was working with Sepa to rectify “sewer misconnections” that could pollute surface water.

Cover image thanks to iStock/phaustov.

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