The clean-up of radioactive pollution by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) at Dalgety Bay in Fife is to start — 31 years after it was first discovered.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has announced that work to decontaminate a stretch of foreshore on the north of the Firth of Forth near a popular sailing club will begin on 17 May. It is expected to be finished in 2022.
Sepa promised that the clean-up would provide a “permanent and positive resolution” to the decades-old pollution. It was “an important milestone for Dalgety Bay”, the agency said.
Campaigners have welcomed the news, but said that it was “utterly disgraceful” that it had taken so long to deal with the contamination. Locals and visitors had been put at risk for “many unnecessary years”, they argued.
The contamination comes from second world war planes, and was accidentally detected during monitoring in 1990. Luminous, radioactive radium was used to make plane dials glow in the dark so they could be read at night.
After the war the planes were incinerated and dumped as landfill, on which part of the town of Dalgety Bay was built in the 1960s. Since 1990 more than 3,000 radioactive particles have been found on the beach and in local gardens.
Hundreds of particles, many of them potentially hazardous, keep being washed ashore from a headland being eroded by the sea. To protect public health, access to contaminated areas was restricted in 2011, and fishing was banned.
Now Sepa has given permission for MoD contractors to start the clean-up. Parts of the beach will be dug up and processed to remove contamination, and a new slipway built for the Dalgety Bay sailing club.
The headland will be fitted with new “rock armour” to try and prevent erosion and further contamination. Heavy excavating and moving machinery is expected to arrive at the site on 17 May.
“Once remediation has been completed and verified by Sepa it is expected that all the current restrictions will be lifted and the public will be able to enjoy unrestricted access for the first time since 2011,” Sepa said.
Sepa’s radioactive substances manager, Paul Dale, promised that the planned clean-up would deal with the problem “once and for all”. The start of work was “an important milestone for Dalgety Bay and for Scotland’s stunning environment,” he said.
“Communities around Dalgety Bay have, for many years, lived with the environmental legacy of second world war radium contamination on the shore. Sepa has been clear in our requirements that remediation will be done once, and it will be done right – providing a permanent and positive resolution.”
Dale added that access restrictions, monitoring and removal of radioactive particles had protected the public. The long journey towards successfully cleaning up the foreshore had only been possible because Sepa, Fife Council, the MoD and the local community worked “constructively together”, he argued.
According to Friends of the Earth Scotland, the area had been “blighted” by radioactive pollution that was “dangerous” to people and wildlife. “It is great news that a clean up is about to get underway but it is utterly disgraceful that it has taken more than thirty years to begin properly dealing with the problems,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“MoD denial and foot dragging has left locals and visitors at risk for many unnecessary years. A big part of the problem has been the MoD’s fear that if they admit they have to pay to clean up Dalgety Bay they’ll be on the hook for massive bills for similar work that needs to done throughout the UK.”
He added: “A proper clean up will take a while but residents can look forward to the day when this terrible curse is finally lifted from the area.”
The Dalgety Bay SNP councillor, David Barratt, was “delighted” that work was now going to start. “No more denial, no more procrastination, no more blaming others, and hopefully no more delay,” he said.
“It has taken over 30 years and significant pressure from the community to get to this point. It should send a clear message that it doesn’t matter how much time passes, the polluter should always pay.”
He added: “Time will tell if it’s smooth sailing from here and whether a 2022 completion date is possible, but it does feel like we’re on the home straight.”
The 50-strong group of Nuclear Free Local Authorities has been working with Fife Council to help get the Dalgety Bay foreshore decontaminated.
“It has been frustrating to say the least on how long it has taken the Ministry of Defence to both accept liability and finally put things in place to get this essential public safety work to begin,” said the group’s Scotland convener, Glasgow SNP councillor, Feargal Dalton.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the clean-up was due to start. “We are pleased that the Sepa license has now been granted for Dalgety Bay and we have received confirmation from our contractor, Balfour Beatty, that they will commence work on this phase on the afternoon of Monday, 17 May 2021,” said the Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin.
This story was updated at 17.15 on 14 May 2021 to add comments from councillor David Barratt and the Ministry of Defence. Cover image thanks to iStock/alanfin.