environmental

57 sites guilty of environmental breaches kept secret

The names of 57 sites across Scotland guilty of breaking environmental rules have been kept secret at the behest of the UK government to protect “national security”.

The Ferret can reveal that all but one of the offending locations are water resources such as reservoirs run by the government company, Scottish Water. The other site that has not been identified had a problem with managing radioactive waste.

The number of unnamed sites rated as “poor” or “very poor” by the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) because of environmental violations, has also increased by 46 per cent in a year.

Campaigners have described the breaches as “worrying” and “disappointing”, and called for greater transparency. They want Sepa to act to ensure improvements are made.

Sepa says all sites are properly regulated, regardless of whether or not they are identified. Scottish Water predicts that the performance of its sites will get better.

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Prior to the coronavirus emergency, Sepa annually assessed more than 5,000 sites in Scotland on their compliance with environmental limits and standards. Sites with breaches were classified as poor or very poor and urged to take remedial action.

But the latest assessments for 2018, released in February, did not identify 357 sites because of national security. Of those, 45 were rated as poor and 12 as very poor.

In response to questions from The Ferret, Sepa disclosed that 56 of 57 poor sites “were related to water resources” controlled under water environment regulations. “The water resources licences in question are held by Scottish Water,” Sepa said.

“Non-compliance is mostly related to an increase in unsatisfactory compensation flows to watercourses, partly due to the dry summer of 2018, which caused water scarcity issues.”

Under the regulations, businesses which take water from rivers, lochs or the ground can be obliged to compensate by ensuring that water flows are maintained. If water levels drop, fish can be stranded and wetlands – home to a rich variety of wildlife – can dry out.

Sepa declined to identify any of the non-compliant sites because of “restrictions on what data we can provide for reasons of national security.” The names and locations of the water sites had to remain confidential “to protect Scotland’s drinking water supply”, Sepa said.

Sepa did, however, identify sewage works in Scotland that failed to make the grade in 2018. Thirty-two were rated as poor and two as very poor, bringing the total number of Scottish Water sites with environmental breaches to 90.

The one other site kept secret was rated as poor under the 1993 Radioactive Substances Act, which governs the safe handling of radioactivity. “This was a waste management issue that had no direct impact on the environment,” Sepa said.

“The matter was investigated and the operator is taking forward corrective actions to prevent repetition.”

Sepa does publish assessments of civil and military nuclear sites, including the nuclear plants at Hunterston, Torness and Dounreay and Faslane naval base. But it keeps under wraps its assessments of other industries that use radioactive sources for measurements and inspections, including the offshore oil industry.

Sepa told The Ferret it could provide “no further information on the site regulated under the Radioactive Substances Act”. It added: “National security is a matter for UK government.”

An analysis of Sepa’s most recent figures reveals a sharp rise in secret sites rated as poor or very poor. The number rose 46 per cent from 39 in 2017 to 57 in 2018.

Sites rated as environmentally poor but kept secret

YearSites rated as poorSites rated as very poorTotal
2016321345
201730939
2018451257
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Professor Andrew Watterson, an expert on environmental regulation at the University of Stirling, was surprised that so many poor sites were kept secret by Sepa. “The national security reasons for the lack of transparency should be fully explained to the public who will assume there is very strong justification for such secrecy,” he said.

“Almost all of the Scottish Water sites must be in public sight, show up on maps and be known to local populations. It is therefore difficult to envisage any major national security reasons to justify the Scottish Water exemptions.”

The significant rise in the number of secret sites was “worrying” and strengthened the case for disclosure “especially if due to climate change impacts”, Watterson argued. The non-disclosure of the site with a poor radioactive performance “should again be fully explained and properly justified”.

Friends of the Earth Scotland demanded higher standards. “National security may genuinely mean these sites cannot be named but it should never be an excuse for continued and indeed accelerating poor performance,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“Because the public cannot be properly involved in scrutiny of these sites Sepa has a double responsibility to get these performance figures up on our behalf.”

Dixon added: The figures for Scottish Water sites are very disappointing, as a public body it should feel a much stronger obligation to meet high environmental standards than a commercial enterprise.”

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Scottish Water pointed out that it had thousands of assets across the country. The compliance rate of its waste water plants was 95 per cent in 2018, but its water resource facilities only managed 71 per cent compliance because of the “severe impacts” of drought.

A company spokesman added: “However, Scottish Water is forecasting a marked improvement in abstraction/compensation licence compliance for 2019. Improvement plans and investment are ongoing for both water and waste water assets to further improve Scottish Water’s compliance.

“This improving picture follows Sepa focusing on previously unsatisfactory sites and the impact of very dry weather, which put pressure on abstraction and compensation licences. We have continued to work with Sepa to achieve continuous improvement through 2019 into 2020.

“National security is a matter for the UK government.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency stressed that compliance was non-negotiable. “Our compliance assessment scheme rates an operator’s environmental performance against its licence and allows Sepa to target resources in the right areas,” said the agency’s head of environmental performance, Chris Dailly.

“We actively publish detailed regulatory information on all sites assessed, with the exception of those with national security interests – which are included within the total number of sites under each compliance rating. Sepa regulates all sites, regardless of their classification.”

The UK Cabinet Office, which is responsible for national security, did not respond to requests to comment.

Photo of Threipmuir Reservoir in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh thanks to iStock/Bob Douglas.

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