The number of annual inspections of sites regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) fell by a quarter over the last five years, prompting concerns about pollution.

Data obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law shows that the number of site inspections by Sepa officers to check for environmental problems fell by more than a thousand between 2014-15 and 2018-19.

Sepa has also pursued fewer prosecutions against polluters breaking environmental law, with the number dropping from 23 in 2015 to eight in 2019. The number of samples taken to gauge water ecology has dropped by almost a third, while the number of locations where samples were taken fell by almost a quarter.

The falls have been criticised by one of Sepa’s former chief executives, experts, politicians and environmental campaigners. They warn that “mother nature is in intensive care” and are concerned that budget cuts have increased the risk of pollution.

Sepa insists that its “risk-based approach to regulation” ensures it is “targeting resources to the right areas” – and that “significant progress” has been made in environmental protection. The Scottish Government says it is now increasing Sepa’s budget.

The data released by Sepa shows that the number of annual environmental inspections across Scotland fell 25 per cent from 4,172 in 2014-15 to 3,108 in 2018-19. There was a 33 per cent drop in the east of Scotland, a 24 per cent drop in the west, and a 19 per cent drop in the north.

Sepa also pursued fewer prosecutions over the last five years, with 23 in 2015, 13 in 2016, six in 2017, one in 2018 and eight in 2019.

Polluters were fined a total of £29,300 in 2015, £113,100 in 2016 and £500 in 2017 – but no fines were recorded in 2018 and 2019. Some offenders were given community payback orders.

Sepa stressed that the figures were “rolling” over years and represented the outcomes, rather than the reporting of cases. “Reports submitted in a year are very rarely concluded in the same year,” it said.

Revelations about the declines in inspections, prosecutions and water sampling come as Sepa’s latest assessments of more than 5,000 sites show that compliance with environmental rules is getting worse.

More sites rated as poor by Sepa

YearSites at riskPoor sitesVery poor sitesTotal
2016119262 59440
201714027241453
201815628251489
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

The number of sites rated by Sepa as “at risk”, “poor” or “very poor” for pollution or environmental breaches rose from 440 in 2016 to 489 in 2018 – an increase of 11 per cent. They included 37 fish farms, 34 public sewage works, Donald Trump’s Turnberry golf resort, Gordonstoun school, Gleneagles Hotel, Ineos at Grangemouth, ExxonMobil in Fife, a Dundee waste incinerator, a Dunbar cement works and many more.

In 2019 The Ferret reported that Scottish Government funding for Sepa had been slashed by 34 per cent from £52.5 million to £34.4 million between 2010-11 and 2019-20. A report for Scottish Environment Link, a coalition of more than 35 groups, estimated that almost £100 million had been cut from the budgets of eight Scottish environment bodies.

Professor James Curran, who was Sepa’s chief executive from 2012 to 2015 and now chairs the environmental research group, The James Hutton Institute, expressed concern about the cutbacks in inspections. “A decade of austerity has resulted in a climate and biodiversity emergency and mother nature is in intensive care,” he said.

“We urgently need sound science to determine how to treat her, and good monitoring to check if she’s recovering. If not, we run the risk of losing the patient.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland stressed that Sepa needed to be equipped to “crack down” on the companies that were failing to take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

“The new approach of prioritising the worst offenders certainly makes sense in principle but, with fewer inspections overall and worse compliance in 2018, we still remain to be convinced that this plan is really working,” said the environmental group’s campaigner, Sarah Moyes.

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Scottish Labour described the drop in inspections as “very concerning” and demanded an end to the cutbacks. “We cannot allow standards to slip as we simultaneously tackle the climate and environmental emergency and leave the European Union and its environmental protections,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP.

“The health of our environments, sustainability of industry and living standards of communities rely on Sepa’s monitoring and governance, and the Scottish Government should invest in this.”

Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, stressed that without inspections of specific sites, it would not be possible to ensure that businesses are complying with environmental laws.

He said: “As we face major climate change challenges in Scotland along with global pollution problems, it is vital we have a credible, trusted and transparent regulator, recognised by all to be independent, well-resourced and staffed.”

He argued that it was “especially important that Sepa ensures accessible, comprehensive and understandable data on inspections, compliance and monitoring” were publicly available “especially for local communities most affected by the actions of the regulator.”

Sepa needs to be able “to address not just the risks, but the obvious and preventable hazards we all face,” Watterson added. “This needs to be reflected in the statistics of the regulator and currently that picture looks distinctly foggy.”

WWF Scotland argued that public bodies had a “vital role” in responding to the nature and climate emergencies. But “with squeezed budgets in recent years it has become harder to do more with less,” it said.

Gina Hanrahan, the environmental group’s head of policy warned that cutbacks had forced Sepa to conduct “increasingly focused inspections where there’s a higher risk of breaches.”

She welcomed new funding for Sepa in the Scottish Government’s 2020-21 draft budget, but said the public bodies “are still playing catch up after years of cuts, at a time when the crisis for nature is worsening.”

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Sepa argued that “targeting resources to the right areas has resulted in environmental compliance of Scottish business exceeding 90 per cent for the third year in a row.”

Efforts in “tackling public priorities” included “driving investment to secure compliance at ExxonMobil’s Mossmorran complex and “ensuring all of Scotland’s businesses meet their legal obligations”, a spokesperson said.

Sepa highlighted that its first dedicated environmental enforcement unit was launched in 2019, and that it helped establish the multi-agency joint unit on waste crime with England’s Environment Agency.

“As a public agency it’s right that we’re held to account for our record,” added the spokesperson. “It’s right that we recognise the significant progress made in protecting and enhancing Scotland’s environment and that we match available resources to where they matter most.”

The Scottish Government said that its 2020-21 draft budget announcement promised a £500,000 increase for Sepa. “This is in addition to a forecast increase in income from charging those it regulates, which now makes up more than 50 per cent of Sepa’s budget,” a government spokesperson said.

Charging had helped Sepa to increase its income from £33 million in 2008-09 to a projected £41.5 million in 2019-20, said the spokesperson. “Sepa’s inspection programme is set independently of government and is targeted and risk-based to make the best use of available resources whilst carrying out their statutory functions.”

Water sampling and fish farming

Data released by Sepa also showed that from 2014-18 the number of water ecology samples it took dropped by 32 per cent, while the number of locations where samples were taken fell by 24 per cent.

The number of samples taken and sampling points used to test water with fish fell by 26 per cent between 2017-18. This is despite a more than nine-fold increase between 2014 and 2017.

Despite declines in some types of sampling, the overall number of sampling locations and number of samples taken rose by 12 and 13 per cent respectively between 2014 and 2018. The majority of samples were taken in largely rural areas, such as Highland, Dumfries and Galloway, Aberdeenshire and Fife.

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor for the wild fish campaign group, Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, argued that the recent fall in fish water samples showed that Sepa was not adequately regulating fish farms.

Sepa must be “properly funded to regulate the fish farms robustly and independently” and “given a strong ministerial steer to bring matters under control, including tackling the massive impact of fish farms on wild salmon and sea trout,” he said.

He added that without strong regulation “the reckless expansion of this industry will continue to be prioritised over protecting the environment, but perhaps that is really what the current Scottish Government wants?”

The pollution assessments released by Sepa disclosed that 35 fish farms and hatcheries were rated as “poor” for pollution, and a further two as “very poor”. Sites mostly received these ratings for polluting the seabed, as well as breaching other environmental regulations.

Sepa pointed out that the number of fish farming sites rated excellent, good or broadly compliant, rose from 82 per cent to 85.6 per cent between 2016 and 2018. In 2019, the agency launched a new regulatory regime, a finfish aquaculture sector plan, and “conducted more unannounced inspections than ever before”.

A spokesperson said that by the end of 2020, Sepa “will move all marine finfish farms onto the new regulatory regime to help us progressively drive enhanced compliance across the sector over the coming years.”

The spokesperson stressed that Scotland’s “water environment is cleaner than ever before”, adding that “97 per cent of Scotland’s beautiful rivers achieved ‘unpolluted or unimpacted by pollution’ status in the latest data set.”

The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, said the increase in the number of fish farms deemed satisfactory by Sepa “indicates the significant and ongoing effort and investment to improve environmental stewardship” by the industry.

“I’m delighted that this continued focus is delivering positive results,” said Julie Hesketh-Laird, the organisation’s chief executive. “As a sector, we fully recognise that a strong environmental performance is key to successful salmon farming and we want to demonstrate publicly our commitment to responsible performance.”

Poll: Are you concerned by the drop in environmental monitoring checks in Scotland?


The data released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Sepa F0191363 Response Fall in number of inspections and water sampling (Text)

Sepa Water Sampling Totals (Text)

Header image license: Creative Commons Zero – CC0. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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Has anyone looked at the SEPA online map, detailing the status of Scotland’s rivers? (https://map.environment.gov.scot/sewebmap/?layers=riverClass&extent=-798759,60340,1333758,1722563).
I cannot understand how a statement can be made that “The spokesperson stressed that Scotland’s “water environment is cleaner than ever before”, adding that “97 per cent of Scotland’s beautiful rivers achieved ‘unpolluted or unimpacted by pollution’ status in the latest data set.”. There appears to be some form of misdirection or misinterpretation going on. I don’t know what the actual percentages are, but it looks like closer to 50% of rivers are poor or bad status.