Scotland is “way behind” England in solving problems with sewage spills into rivers, according to Scottish Government officials.
Internal emails seen by The Ferret reveal that officials criticised the public company, Scottish Water, for allowing an “unacceptably high” number of leaks from its sewerage systems.
Senior staff from Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) 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 between the government, Sepa and Scottish Water, about leaks between July and October 2021, were obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law. They show that newly-appointed environment minister, Mairi McAllan, and government officials pushed Sepa and Scottish Water to take action.
In response to our findings the Liberal Democrats demanded a statement from McAllan to parliament on tackling the “sewage leak crisis”. It was “particularly troubling” that Sepa’s “first concern was for its reputation rather than the health of rivers and communities,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Liam McArthur MSP.
“Just days after SNP MPs lambasted the UK Government for voting to allow raw sewage into rivers, it emerges that their Scottish Government has a very smelly problem of its own,” he added.
Labour’s Monica Lennon MSP claimed SNP MPs “kept their heads down while the Tories were rightly slammed for their shameful decision to let sewage pour into rivers”. She added: “And now we know why.”
In England, the UK Government refused to back a bid to stop sewage being dumped into waterways. But following a backlash, it backed an amendment which legally obliges water firms to reduce the amount of sewage they release.
The Scottish Government emails reveal internal discussions had after The Ferret revealed in July that sewage spilled directly into Scotland’s rivers, lochs and seas at least 12,000 times in a single year. The real figure is likely to be higher.
Other emails released by FoI are addressed to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. They come from desperate residents whose homes, streets and parks were repeatedly covered with sewage.
They claim Scottish Water and local councils were too slow to act, failed to tackle the spills, and passed the buck to one another.
“It’s clear communities are already facing the grim consequences of this pollution, which will continue to harm our public health and environment if left unchecked,” Monica Lennon said of the “jaw-dropping revelations”.
She added: “We cannot sit back while our rivers are treated like sewers – the SNP must act now.”
The Scottish Government, Scottish Water and Sepa stressed they were working to tackle the spills, with investment and long-term plans in place.
Sewage leaks come via combined sewage overflows (CSOs) — pipes which allow rainwater and sewage to be released into waterways during heavy rainfall, reducing the risk of sewage backing up in homes.
‘Way behind’ England
In internal emails government officials deemed The Ferret’s July article on the spills “an eye-opener (not in a good way)”.
Summarising the article, David Lister, the government’s water environment policy manager, consulted colleagues on 5 July on a draft briefing for energy secretary, Michael Matheson.
Authorities were seen by the public as acting “too slow” while a task force had been set up almost a year earlier in England to tackle sewage leaks, Lister said.
Some 80 per cent of sewage overflows are monitored south of the border, with the remainder to be monitored by 2023. In Scotland just 10 per cent are monitored by Scottish Water, which plans to increase this to only 12 per cent by 2024, he said.
Scotland was “way behind” England, Lister stressed. The number of Scottish leaks were in some cases “unacceptably high”, while many spills were “not compliant with Scotland’s environmental obligations”, he concluded.
Sepa had estimated “645 unsatisfactory sewer overflows” in 2019, Lister highlighted.
Barry Grieg, the government’s head of water industry policy, advised that Lister “avoid using the phrase ‘unacceptably high’ in the government’s position. This “might be taken as implying a target has been breached,” he warned.
Lister pointed to six locations which The Ferret highlighted sewage leaks had happened at least 300 times in a year — making them, on average, a daily occurrence during 2020. It would be “difficult to suggest” such numbers were “satisfactory,” he warned.
Aidan Grisewood, the government’s deputy director of environmental quality said: “I’m a bit shocked by the disparity [between Scotland and England] and I think Ms McAllan will be too, but I do think we should bring it explicitly to her attention”.
The minister had told officials weeks earlier she “wasn’t happy with the overflows and wanted us to do – and be seen to do – something about it,” according to a comment shared by her private secretary.
“Pressing Sepa is a good start,” she added. “I don’t think the below addresses the ‘seen to be doing’ part. Can we address that please?”
Joyce Carr, head of the government’s water environment team, told Sepa that McAllan wanted the issue tackled. “As you know we have been asking for action on these matters for some considerable time,” she said.
While Scottish Water was responsible for upgrading its infrastructure, Sepa was required to ensure “upgrades are delivered in a timely fashion and to the appropriate standard,” she emphasised.
Sepa must “present a formal action plan” to review all the water-related sites it had licenced and make Scottish Water monitor and address its unsatisfactory CSOs, Carr added.
On 9 August, an email from a government’s environment team member claimed: “[Sepa] operational staff are pleased we are pushing this as they’ve been trying for years to get traction”.
But the official added there was “some wariness at senior levels within Sepa” about reviewing the licences awarded to Scottish Water which permit it to operate its various sites.
Reviewing licences “in bulk” could “be interpreted that Sepa regulatory action to date has not been as robust as it might have been(!),” added the official.
Communities ‘blighted’ by ‘Scottish Water inadequacy’
|Dates and location||Message to Scottish Government|
|July 2020 to August 2021 – Burntisland, Fife||A man claimed sewage spills forced him to leave his home for eight months in 2019. His property was flooded again in 2020 and 2021.
The man asked the First Minister for help, claiming his neighbourhood – including a kids play park – had been “blighted by the incompetency of Scottish Water”. He said: “This is a health hazard, yet nothing is ever done."
|July 2021 – MacMerry, East Lothian||A man told the government and First Minister a drain had spilled “human waste” into his mother’s garden, and her elderly neighbour’s home.
He claimed Scottish Water took 48 hours to come and clean the spill. After another spill, Scottish Water allegedly went to another address mistakenly.
“My last resort was emailing yourselves as I feel it's the only way any of the residents here have a chance [of] being heard,” he told the government.
|July 2021 – Denny, Falkirk||A man said “human waste” had for days spilled from a nearby manhole, covered his driveway and seeped towards the community centre.
Scottish Water had not fulfilled promises to fix the leak and councillors ignored him, he claimed. “There are pets, small children and older children walking past my house and through this waste and they will be unaware of the potential health implications”.
Asked by the government why the issue took so long to fix, Scottish Water said a blockage had been initially “misdiagnosed”.
Work underway to tackle spills
Scottish Water stressed it continually invests in and improves its infrastructure and is increasing the number of CSOs it monitors. It published its 25-year sustainability plan in 2020.
Improving all unsatisfactory CSOs would cost at least £650m “given the pressure of climate change and population growth“, with £150m earmarked recently.
David Harley, Sepa’s head of water and planning said he had “required Scottish Water to upgrade over 250 unsatisfactory sewer overflows over the past decade and are requiring action on those which are having the most significant impacts on wildlife or are causing significant litter problems.”
The Scottish Government said it took the sewage spill issue “very seriously” and claimed Scotland was” renowned worldwide for the environmental quality” of its waters.
Sepa currently classifies 87 per cent of Scotland’s waterbodies as having ‘good’ water quality, and Scottish Water’s proposed improvements at its sites would help to increase this to 92 per cent by 2027, a government spokesperson said.
“The river basin management planning process identifies where there are sewage pollution impacts on watercourses and sets out measures for their improvement”. Sepa had consulted on the government’s behalf on the management plan’s third draft, which would be published at the end of 2021, they added.
Scottish Government communications with Sepa and Scottish Water in full
Cover image thanks to iStock/Iri-s. This story was published in tandem with The Herald.