The Scottish Government has been urged to start reporting on sewage spillages annually after The Ferret revealed that sewage spilled directly into Scotland’s rivers, lochs and seas at least 12,000 times in a single year.
The issue was raised at Holyrood on 22 December after Scottish Liberal Democrat climate emergency spokesperson, Liam McArthur MSP, secured a statement from environment minister Mairi McAllan.
McAllan did not respond specifically to McArthur’s request for annual sewage leak reports, however, although she said that Scottish Water was continually improving its infrastructure, with a further half a billion pounds recently earmarked.
McArthur made the request for a statement in November after we reported that government officials privately said Scotland was “way behind” England in tackling the issue of high numbers of sewage leaks via storm overflow systems.
We obtained emails between the government, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and Scottish Water, about leaks between July and October 2021, under freedom of information law.
Other emails obtained by The Ferret were addressed to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. They came from desperate residents whose homes, streets and parks were repeatedly covered with sewage.
Addressing parliament on 22 December, McAllan said: “Since 2010 Scottish Water has worked with Sepa to upgrade 104 wastewater treatment works and 279 storm overflows, by investing £686 million. And now they plan to go even further, investing a further half a billion pounds to improve and protect Scotland’s waste water network.”
Emails show that McAllan and government officials pushed Sepa and Scottish Water to take action after a July report from The Ferret revealed the extent of the spills.
Scottish Water had in some cases allowed an “unacceptably high” number of leaks from its sewerage systems, officials said. These were “not compliant with Scotland’s environmental obligations”, they added.
Senior Sepa staff were also hesitant to review Scottish Water’s operating licences in bulk in case it suggested Sepa’s enforcement had not been strong enough, the emails revealed.
Responding to McAllan’s statement in parliament, McArthur said: “The one figure missing from the minister’s statement was the one that prompted us to ask for it last month.
“The Ferret revealed that sewage spilled into Scotland’s waterways more than 12,000 times last year alone, while Ian Blackford [SNP Westminster leader] tore into UK ministers in England, officials here were admitting privately that Scotland was way behind.
“It’s clear that the environment watchdog’s first concern wasn’t the health of our streams, rivers and communities, but for their own reputation.
“So will the minister commit to annual reporting of sewage spillages? And can she tell us whether the plan is to eliminate these, or if a specific target will be set?”
McAllan responded, claiming that an official calling sewage leaks “unacceptably high” in emails referred specifically to just six out of 350 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) currently monitored by Scottish Water, rather than the whole sewage network.
CSOs are pipes which allow rainwater and sewage to be released into waterways during heavy rainfall, reducing the risk of sewage backing up in homes.
Reference to being “way behind” England, “was not about the frequency of spills, or the effect on the environment, but about monitoring alone,” she claimed. “Scottish Water took a strategic decision in years gone by to focus investment on improving overflows – not monitoring them,” the environment minister said.
“And I think that has borne fruit, when we now have a 66 per cent water quality position in Scotland.”
She continued: “We are not resting on our laurels, but now working to improve some of those most problematic storm overflows.” McAllan added that storm overflows were “a vital part of the system” and would not be eliminated.
In a July email, David Lister, the Scottish Government’s water environment policy manager, said Scottish authorities were seen by the public as acting “too slow” to tackle the high numbers of leaks from some CSOs.
A task force had been set up almost a year earlier in England to tackle sewage leaks, he said.
Some 80 per cent of sewage overflows were monitored south of the border, with the remainder to be monitored by 2023. But just 10 per cent of CSOs were monitored by Scottish Water, which plans to increase this to only 12 per cent by 2024, Lister said.
They claimed Scottish Water and local councils were too slow to act, failed to tackle the spills, and passed the buck to one another.
Following McAllan’s statement, Simon Parsons, Scottish Water’s director of strategic customer service planning said:
“By announcing a package of planned investments in our waste water system – from our treatment works to our Combined Sewer Overflows – worth up to half a billion pounds, we are underlining our commitment to protecting Scotland’s urban waters for decades to come.”
He added: “Customers can also play a huge part – too many inappropriately flushed items such as wet wipes enter our network which either cause sewer flooding, blockages or appear as debris in rivers and beaches.”
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