Scottish Water discharged sewage on over 500 occasions in one year into a Lothian river where people swim and fish.
In response to freedom of information requests, Scottish Water revealed there were 501 instances of sewage being released into the River Almond in 2019 via what is called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
These overflows not only release sewage along with flood water into the river, but also sanitary waste flushed down toilets.
According to Scottish Water, CSOs act as a “vital relief mechanism to safely relieve the pressure on the sewer network by discharging at designated points to avoid flooding at times of very heavy rainfall.”
But local campaigners in West Lothian said they found it “shocking” that rivers can be used as an open sewer.
They claimed people were seen swimming and fishing in the River Almond following sewage releases and are calling for action to address overflows.
Campaigners also want the public to be warned when CSOs are in operation.
The sewage releases came from four wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) which are managed on Scottish Water’s behalf by contractor Veolia, and discharged into the River Almond at Newbridge, Blackburn, Whitburn and East Calder.
The River Almond rises in Lanarkshire before running through West Lothian and into the Firth of Forth at Cramond.
Details for the East Calder WWTW show there were a significant number of releases of sewage into the River Almond in 2018 as well as 2019. Over those two years, there were a total of 113 overflows via CSOs from East Calder alone.
The FOIs on sewage overflows were obtained by Lee Haywood, a member of the River Almond Action Group, a campaign group in West Lothian.
Haywood said: “Combined sewage (largely untreated sewage, plus rain water) is being regularly overflowed into our river, during and following moderate to heavy rainfalls. Scottish Water, SEPA, and the wastewater treatment plant operators Veolia need to act and at least let the public know why and when sewage is being discharged into the river.
“Following recent sewage overflows, many people, including teens, were seen splashing about and swimming in the river, anglers were out fishing, as dogs swam and drank from the river. There are still no signs up or warning from Scottish Water about the risk of this.
“Things need to improve and we want to work constructively with the relevant organisations to strive for a cleaner, healthier and swimmable River Almond – that can only happen when they change their rhetoric and stop blaming the public, when the WWTWs are clearly struggling with capacity issues”.
The Forth Rivers Trust, a charity which works to conserve the freshwater environment, said that of 1300 items of litter collected along a 100 metre stretch of the Almond during a citizen science project, around 90 per cent was “wet wipes or flushed material.”
Angela Constance MSP, whose Almond Valley constituency includes the river, said: “The River Almond is an important and beautiful part of our natural heritage in West Lothian. Over the years local groups have secured investments to transform it from industrial polluting and scarring. What is now needed is long term investment to provide a permanent solution to the release of overflow from the water waste treatment works at East Calder.
“It is all very well for the regulatory authorities to say any release is both necessary and safe but the bottom line is sewage waste is at times visible and local people want a proper warning system in place until a permanent solution is found. The river has always been highly valued locally and even more so during the pandemic.”
Dr Pippa Scott, a local resident and member of the River Almond Action Group said: “What is shocking a lot of local residents is that it seems that using our rivers as an open sewer is allowed, not just for one off freak rain events, but seemingly for every time it rains and with it comes a lot of unsanitary rubbish too.
“As residents and users of the river we want environmental regulations and a wastewater treatment plant that is fit for purpose, protects our rivers and is capable of handling a bit of Scottish weather.”
In response to concerns, a spokesperson for Scottish Water said: “East Calder WWTW, which treats the waste water from most of our customers in Livingston and some of the surrounding area, is operating as it should be.”
Scottish Water, which is fully owned by the Scottish Government, pointed out that all CSOs are licensed and regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
Scottish Water’s spokesperson added: “We carry out clean-ups after storm events when there is evidence of non-flushable items and ask people to report any concerns to us. All the CSOs at this site are screened to prevent items which should not be in the sewer network, such as wet wipes and sanitary products, entering watercourses. We urge our customers to follow our 3Ps message and only flush pee, poo and (loo) paper.”
Photo thanks to Mark Phillips.