The Trident nuclear base has been condemned by the Scottish Government’s green watchdog for its “poor” environmental performance after it polluted the Clyde with toxic chemicals.
According to the navy this was because a “higher than usual level of chlorination” was detected in the Gareloch off Faslane. The base uses chlorine to prevent its waste discharge pipes from becoming clogged by algae, barnacles and seaweed.
Chlorine is classified by the UK Government as “very toxic to aquatic life” because it poses “acute hazards to the aquatic environment”. The chemical’s compounds in water are known to harm fish, shellfish and other wildlife.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) accused the UK Government, which runs the Faslane base, of having a “callous disregard for Scotland’s natural environment”. Campaigners described Faslane’s poor rating as a “major alarm bell”.
The Royal Navy, however, insisted that this was an “isolated event” and that pollution had been low in 2020. It took its environmental responsibilities “very seriously”, it said.
Sepa usually assesses the environmental compliance of thousands of Scotland’s industrial sites every year. But publication of its assessments for 2019 has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and the cyber attack on Sepa’s computers on Christmas Eve 2020.
Covid-19 also caused Sepa to abandon its entire compliance assessment scheme for 2020.
The Ferret has now learnt that Faslane was assessed as “poor” for 2019 because of a previously unreported pollution incident. Sepa defines poor as “non-compliant or responsible for at least one significant breach”.
Sepa refused to comment on the breach until its compliance assessments of all sites were released “in due course”.
But the Royal Navy explained that it was because the Gareloch had been polluted with chlorine compounds at some point in the last three months of 2019. “An isolated event was reported to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency,” said a spokesperson for the Royal Navy.
“A higher than usual level of chlorination had been measured in a 2019 sample from the Gareloch. The levels have since been normal throughout 2020, are well below the levels in drinking water, and are considered not to have an adverse environmental impact.”
The spokesperson added: “The Royal Navy takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously and continues to work with the relevant UK authorities to comply with legislation and reduce environmental risk. HM Naval Base Clyde continues to monitor, report and work with Sepa.”
The SNP’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP, argued that environmental failings had been a “recurring theme” at Faslane. “These new reports make for deeply concerning reading,” he said.
“After decades of promised action from the UK Government following numerous oil spills and radioactive waste dumps in the waters of the Gareloch, it is abundantly clear that the UK Government’s disregard for the environment is simply baked into their approach.”
McDonald added: “A steady stream of pollutants of all kinds have been poured into the Gareloch from the naval base at Faslane for years, yet there has been no real evidence that the UK Government is taking this seriously.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament pointed out that Faslane’s submarines discharged radioactive tritium as well as carrying highly flammable fuel, explosives and nuclear warheads. “A rating of poor is a major alarm bell,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson.
“This is another indication of the deceitful and conceited claim that nuclear weapons are for our defence when there is a UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons awaiting the signature of the UK or of an independent Scotland.”
Dr Richard Dixon, the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, warned that even small amounts of chlorine could harm marine wildlife. “This looks like a one-off event but the Faslane base does not seem to be able to explain why it happened,” he said.
“If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t fix it. The navy claims to be serious about the environment, but this is hard to square with the poor rating from Sepa at Faslane.”
The Scottish Greens also expressed concern about Faslane’s poor environmental record. “I would expect an explanation from Sepa as to why they failed to assess Faslane’s compliance last year,” said the party’s candidate for the West of Scotland, Ross Greer.
Sepa stressed that environmental compliance was non-negotiable. “The last published compliance assessment scheme results, for 2018, showed that for the fourth year in a row, more than 90 per cent of regulated sites were compliant,” said a spokesperson.
“We’re working to drive towards full compliance and beyond. We are also working to a clear recovery strategy in response to a complex and sophisticated cyber-attack.
“Compliance assessment scheme results for 2019 have not yet been published and we will make these available in due course.”
Cover image thanks to the Ministry of Defence.