sewage sludge

Scottish Government failing to tackle sewage sludge, says Environmental Rights Centre

A green charity has accused ministers of failing to regulate the use of a potentially dangerous sewage fertiliser seven years after a Scottish Government report called for action.

Sewage sludge – which has a vile odour – is a by-product of sewage and wastewater treatment often used as fertiliser on fields due to its nutrient-rich content.

But it needs to be processed to remove potentially toxic contaminants like heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, viruses, pathogens, and ‘forever chemicals’ which do not break down in the environment.

Such contaminants can build up in farmland and crops and flow into waterways. In the US, sewage sludge has contaminated drinking water and caused human illness. High levels of ‘forever chemicals’ have been found in the blood of farmers utilising it.

According to research, UK land has among Europe’s highest concentrations of microplastics due to sewage sludge. The spreading of sewage sludge is banned in some countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US state of Maine.

The communities who have to put up with the smell, health and environmental problems relating to sludge are clearly not a priority for the Scottish Government.

Ben Christman, in-house solicitor for ERCS

Measures to better regulate it in Scotland were outlined in a 2016 government report, which called for stronger laws around the spreading and storage of sewage sludge.

But the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) said the 2016 report was “gathering dust” and urged ministers to act on it. The green charity also called for a public consultation, which has also been delayed for years, to be carried out.

The government has repeatedly promised to launch a public consultation on sewage sludge for nearly two years, but this has yet to transpire.

Another environmental charity, Fidra, warned of Scotland’s “outdated regulations and monitoring” that don’t include contaminants like microplastics and forever chemicals, adding that spreading sewage sludge “in its current contaminated form” should be avoided.

A government-commissioned, updated health risk assessment of sewage sludge conducted in 2018 was not published until 2020, amidst pressure from MSPs and campaigners.

The government said efforts to tackle sewage sludge were in progress following delays caused by Covid-19 and Brexit, but stressed that the 2018 assessment found no new evidence of significant risks from spreading.

Sewage sludge reports

Scientists and local communities, who have long complained about its stench and potential health risks, have raised concerns about sewage sludge.

In 2012, Aberdeen scientists told the British Science Festival that man-made chemicals found in sewage sludge could be as significant as climate change due their effects on ecosystems and human health.

Their studies into sheep grazed on pastures treated with sewage sludge found the chemicals had impacted the health and fertility of the animals and their offspring.

Dairy farmers using a liquid fertiliser containing a chemical cocktail akin to sewage sludge have reported similar issues in their cattle including high abortion rates and decreasing milk yields. One farmer lost an entire herd.

The government’s 2016 Sludge Review acknowledged “a need for greater consistency, and greater confidence in the way sewage sludge is handled and used”.

Among the recommendations were that the voluntary code of practice for sewage sludge use be updated and incorporated into Scots law, with a ‘fit and proper person’ test introduced for all operators.

Mairi McAllan and her predecessors have failed to understand or chosen to ignore, the extent of the health implications to both the Scottish public and the animal population.

Doreen Goldie and Jo Hirst, formerly of Avonbridge and Standburn Community Council

The report also recommended that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) should be given powers to police operators, including being able to force the removal of sewage sludge stores if it causes long-term odour problems.

The government and Sepa should consider reducing the amount of time it can be stored for on-site agricultural use – currently six months – and assessing each request to store it on a case by case basis, it added.

In 2018, ministers commissioned the Dundee-based James Hutton Institute and others to produce an updated sewage sludge health risk assessment.

It found 10 potentially harmful agents in sewage sludge, nine of which could be “partially controlled through treatment processes” to reduce their risk. The tenth – “malodour”, or the stench – could be managed by reducing lime-treated sludge, avoiding spreading during windier conditions, and keeping a minimum distance between sludge and nearby residents.

Due to data and knowledge limitations, “it was not possible to fully assess a number of potentially hazardous agents”, including microplastics and all “emerging” pathogens, the report said, adding that emerging threats should be monitored.

Local residents in Avonbridge, near Falkirk, were also consulted and told researchers they could not open windows and felt their health was at risk. They called for a ban on spreading until it was proven there were no risks to local communities.

sewage sludge
Sewage sludge is dangerous due to its potential contamination with harmful substances such as heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, viruses, pathogens, and persistent chemicals that can pose risks to human health and the environment. Image: SuSanA Secretariat/Flickr

Pressure on government to act

Campaigners, the ERCS and MSPs from different parties have for years pressured the government and its successive environment secretaries to implement findings from the reports.

The Hutton report was not published until October 2021 despite the government telling various MSPs that publication was imminent in the preceding years. It said the delays were due to Brexit and Covid-19.

But the ERCS claimed the report was only released after a member of the public made a freedom of information request, and appealed the decision after it was initially refused.

In March 2022, Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr asked the government what action it would take following the report, and was told a consultation – which has yet to launch – would commence “in the coming months”.

In July 2022, ERCS asked the then-environment minister for new laws to be enacted, and was told the consultation was scheduled for October 2022. In December, three MSPs were told new regulations and a consultation would launch in early 2023.

When no action was taken, ERCS asked Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), a non-ministerial office, independent of the government and accountable to the Scottish Parliament, to intervene. It said the consultation would occur in the second quarter of 2023.

ESS said it reviewed the Hutton report’s conclusions, and published its own report as a result of the complaint. With the government consultation due to begin, it has “therefore decided not to intervene but will continue to push for the progress of this work”, ESS chief executive, Mark Roberts, told The Ferret. 

MSPs that previously challenged the government also renewed calls for action against sewage sludge. Labour’s Monica Lennon, said ministers “must provide an immediate update on the consultation and a timetable for the introduction of robust regulation”.

Michelle Thomson, the SNP MSP for Falkirk East, added: “With the promise of a consultation on findings I will be pressing the Scottish Government as to the next steps”.

Sewage sludge report recommendations ‘gathering dust’

Ben Christman, in-house solicitor for ERCS, said: “Sludge is well known to be under-regulated in Scotland. Over seven years have passed since the sludge review was published, yet its recommendations remain on a shelf gathering dust.

“Consultation dates given to us by the Scottish Government have repeatedly come and gone. No good reasons have been given for the continuing delay. The communities who have to put up with the smell, health and environmental problems relating to sludge are clearly not a priority for the Scottish Government.”

Campaigners rejected the government’s reasons for delays, and said its “lack of action is nothing short of shameful”. Doreen Goldie and Jo Hirst, formerly of Avonbridge and Standburn Community Council, argued that authorities had failed to regulate and enforce rules surrounding sewage sludge. 

“Odour, which the Scottish Government appear to obsess upon, pales into insignificance when faced with the long-term problem this method of waste disposal is harbouring,” they said in a joint statement.

Mairi McAllan minister for the environment and her predecessors have failed to understand or chosen to ignore, the extent of the health implications to both the Scottish public and the animal population, by using sewage sludge/biosolids as a fertiliser”.

Fidra, an East Lothian-based green charity, said the agricultural use of sewage sludge “relies on outdated regulations and monitoring that don’t include contaminants such as microplastics and the forever chemicals”.

The need for further research means that legislation should adopt a “precautionary approach, until these waste products are proven to be clean and safe”, a spokesperson said, adding that contaminants “of emerging concern” must be restricted and monitored.

“With the Scottish Government pledging to deliver a more environmentally sustainable farming sector that protects its soils, the agricultural use of sewage sludge in its currently contaminated form should be avoided.”

The Scottish Government said its 2016 sludge review recommendations were being implemented via forthcoming Integrated Authorisation Framework regulations, which aim to bring together and simplify environmental rules and permits.

“Progress has been interrupted by other priority work and Covid-19 but the regulations are currently being prepared and will be consulted on in due course,” said a spokesperson.

The Hutton report “identified no new evidence to suggest a significant risk to human health or wellbeing in respect to the use of sewage sludge,” they added. “Officials continue to engage with both Sepa and Scottish Water to ensure the risk assessment and appropriate, recommended mitigations are in place.”

Main image: SuSanA Secretariat/Flickr

This Ferret story was also published with Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

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