More than 5,000 business sites across Scotland are going to escape judgement on their environmental breaches in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Environmental rules governing radioactive waste, fish farming, recycling and other sectors are also being relaxed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to help companies cope with Covid-19.

The Faslane nuclear base and nuclear power plants have been given the green light to break safety limits on radioactive waste. Salmon farmers are being allowed to use more toxic pesticides in sea lochs.

Waste recycling plants also have permission to stretch some of the rules, as have the whisky industry and farmers.

Sepa insists that companies must still do their best to minimise pollution, and that it will punish serious offenders. Businesses have welcomed the easing of environmental assessments.

But environmentalists – while understanding the need to protect public health – are worried. Some claim that polluters are being given a “free pass”, and that the environment will be harmed.

The biggest change is Sepa abandoning its entire compliance assessment scheme for 2020. Under the scheme more than 5,000 industrial sites are judged on whether their environmental performances are “very poor”, “poor”, “good” or “excellent”.

The latest assessments for 2018 released in February revealed that ExxonMobil’s petrochemical plant at Mossmorran in Fife, an Ineos terminal at Grangemouth and Donald Trump’s golf resort in Ayrshire had all been condemned as poor. Gordonstoun private school, the five-star Gleneagles Hotel and 90 Scottish Water sites were also guilty of environmental breaches.

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In 2017 Trump’s other Scottish golf course in Aberdeenshire was rated as poor, along with BP, Tarmac, McVities, and ExxonMobil again. In 2016 the environmental offenders included Ineos, BP, Baxters, 47 fish farms and seven distilleries.

But Sepa has now disclosed that it is cancelling the 2020 compliance assessment scheme. “Sepa will not be in a position to carry out the systematic compliance work required by the scheme this year,” it said.

“We cannot guarantee therefore that we could apply the scheme fairly or accurately. This decision has been taken now to provide a clear position for all.”

Sepa promised to keep assessing and checking environmental compliance using “a variety of means”. It “will consider over the coming period what sort of reporting on compliance is appropriate.”

The Mossmorran Action Group, which campaigns against flaring at the ExxonMobil and Shell petrochemical plants in Fife, reacted angrily. “It is completely unacceptable that Sepa is giving some of Scotland’s worst polluters a free pass,” said the group’s chair, James Glen.

“Exxon and Shell have one of Scotland’s worst track records for pollution and complying with environmental regulation, yet Sepa is now trusting that they will do the right thing.”

He added: “Local communities do not trust these multinationals and have found it hard to keep faith with Sepa. They will be outraged that Sepa is now using the excuse of the pandemic to tell the Mossmorran operators they are off the hook for the next year.”

Professor Andrew Watterson, from the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling, described Sepa’s move as “extremely worrying”. It was unclear how Sepa would pursue polluters, he argued.

“Covid-19 should not be used as an opportunity to abandon environmental assessments that may affect pollution levels, accountability and health especially in deprived and vulnerable areas of Scotland,” he said.

“The public should be provided with full and detailed information on Sepa’s decision-making for loosening licences on particular plants, industries and sites.”

Communities ‘looking for more protection’ against pollution

Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that the abandonment of the compliance assessment scheme would make it more difficult to identify which businesses needed extra scrutiny in the future. “Communities will have been looking for more reassurance that protecting them from pollution is Sepa’s top priority,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“We welcome the commitment to penalise any firm which tries to exploit the current situation but any flexibility extended to other organisations must be strictly time limited and closely monitored.”

Sepa has also relaxed environmental rules for specific sectors, notably the military and civil nuclear industry. A “temporary regulatory position statement” posted on its website offered radioactive waste exemptions to the Faslane navel base on the Clyde, as well as nuclear plants at Hunterston in North Ayrshire, Torness in East Lothian and Dounreay in Caithness.

“During a significant outbreak of Covid-19 the ability of operators to run their operations may be compromised by a lack of available staff,” the statement said.

“We expect operators to be ensuring that the impacts of Covid-19 on the environment are minimised. We recognise, however, that in some cases operators may be unable to comply for reasons beyond their control.”

It added: “Any failure by the operator to comply with the conditions of their authorisation will not be treated as a non-compliance”.

This only applied “where non-compliance with authorisation conditions is unavoidable and a direct result of emergency resulting from Covid-19 outbreak and will not lead to significant environmental harm,” Sepa said.

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Faslane naval base

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament warned that more dangerous radioactivity could be discharged into the environment. “It is outrageous to suggest that the pandemic is a reason for relaxation of the regulatory requirements,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“Willingness to tolerate possible breaches of regulations by civil or military nuclear facilities demonstrates shocking inadequacy on the part of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Whose environment are they in place to protect?”

The nuclear-free group of local authorities also expressed concern. “These new rules from Sepa seem to allow further leeway on nuclear sites over the handling of radioactive waste,” said the group’s vice convenor in Scotland, Renfrewshire SNP councillor Audrey Doig.

“Sepa should be very wary of relaxing rules and find ways of continuing to regulate the industry in the robust, safe and secure way the public expects.”

Edinburgh-based nuclear consultant, Peter Roche, argued that it wasn’t right for nuclear industry rules to be weakened. “It is far too dangerous to leave nuclear waste without a workforce to care for and manage it,” he said.

According to Sepa, the recycling and waste management industry could struggle with limits on operating hours, maximum storage limits and environmental monitoring. It has urged companies at risk of breaching their permits to get in touch.

Sepa has also allowed whisky distilleries laxer timetables for discharging effluents if they have to shut down. It has told dairy farmers that they can pour away unsold milk on land but not in rivers.

More toxic pesticides to be used by salmon farmers

The Scottish Greens said it was “understandable” that Sepa had adopted a pragmatic approach. “It has been clear that it will take a hard line with businesses that deliberately flout regulations,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“I expect the regulator to live up to that commitment.”

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce pointed out that businesses were facing some of the most challenging conditions ever seen in peacetime. “So it is welcome Sepa will temporarily ease its assessment regime,” said chief executive, Dr Liz Cameron.

“Clearly this does not give businesses carte blanche and we would expect Sepa to continue its stewardship of Scotland’s environment.”

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency emphasised that Scotland was facing an unprecedented public health emergency. “The regulatory positions we have taken are a direct response to circumstances no-one wanted to see,” said the agency’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn.

“Where businesses are unable to fully meet their compliance obligations, they should prioritise conditions which directly protect the environment over those of an administrative nature. They should contact Sepa, work closely with us and document the choices and actions they take.”

He added: “Our message is clear: if you try to do the right thing in this next period, you will find a helpful and supportive regulator. If you deliberately do the wrong thing, you’ll get the uncompromising regulator your behaviour deserves.

“We will continue to use a variety of means of checking and assessing compliance, including phone calls, issuing written advice, remotely managed technologies such as drones, targeted site and field visits, and other forms of intelligence gathering. Monitoring of air quality at Mossmorran is continuing as normal.”

Cover photo thanks to iStock/gbs097 and photo of Faslane thanks to the Ministry of Defence. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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