THE stench is rich, deep and nauseating – and it gets everywhere. “If you leave the windows open, it permeates the whole house,” says Linda Tarbuck. “It’s disgusting.”
She lives with her family at Seafield in Edinburgh, no more than 500 metres from one of Scotland’s biggest and most modern sewage works. Sometimes the smell is so awful it forces her and her children indoors.
The environmental injustice she suffers is also endured by thousands of others in east Edinburgh and by many thousands more throughout the rest of Scotland. An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered 28 sewage plants across the country where there have been major problems with stenches.
After a prolonged campaign by local residents, the Seafield sewage treatment works is now facing legal action in an attempt to force it to stop stinking. Warning letters have also been issued to two other plants in Glasgow and Irvine, and more than 20 others – in Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Paisley and elsewhere – are being pursued or investigated by regulatory authorities.
These revelations have provoked a terse and unprecedented argument between the Scottish Executive and its green watchdog, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), over what is responsible for the smells. Sepa suggested that job losses at Scottish Water could be partly to blame, but that has earned it a frosty rebuke from the Executive.
On request from the Sunday Herald, Sepa provided a detailed list of the 28 sewage works that received public complaints about the smell over the last two years. All are run by Scottish Water, eight of them in partnership with private companies as part of the government’s private finance initiative (PFI).
Sepa has issued warning letters to a plant making sludge pellets at Daldowie in Glasgow and to the Meadowhead sewage treatment works in Irvine. The enforcement notice for the Seafield works was served on Scottish Water and its PFI partner, Stirling Water, by Edinburgh City Council last month.
The watchdog is pursuing five other sewage works, investigating two more and has referred a further 15 to local authorities. It suggested that the odour problems at just three works had been resolved.
Sepa’s acting director of operations, Colin Bayes, stressed that complaints had only come from around a small proportion of Scotland’s 1500 sewage treatment facilities, but added: “Where it does occur, it causes a real nuisance and offence to local people, which Sepa takes very seriously.
“We work with local authorities to deal with the issues and we use our regulatory powers when we need to. We also work with Scottish Water to ensure ongoing improvements to all installations.
“Problems often relate to historic underinvestment, but good operational practice needs to be maintained and we do have concerns about reductions in manning levels deriving from the economic constraints facing Scottish Water.”
It is that last remark that seems to have particularly annoyed the Executive. “Sepa’s role is to monitor compliance with environmental regulations, not to comment on operational practice,” said an Executive spokesman.
“We know of no evidence that would give Sepa grounds to assert that odour issues are related to staffing levels. Record amounts of public money are being spent on Scotland’s water infrastructure. Industry regulators, including Sepa, are closely involved in setting the priorities for this investment.”
Trade unions and environmentalists, however, strongly back Sepa’s criticisms. They point out that the total number of people employed by Scottish Water is scheduled to be cut from 6000 in 2001 to 3200 in 2006.
“If the staff of Scottish Water is halved, they will have much less time to carry out maintenance and monitoring. This inevitably means less efficient operation and more odour problems,” said Dave Watson from Unison, the trade union that represents water workers.
Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that Scottish Water’s operations were cause for real anxiety. “If there is a risk that reductions in staffing will lead to a failure to comply with regulations, then it is right that the regulators intervene,” said the group’s chief executive, Duncan McLaren.
“If the Executive really wants Sepa to deliver on its statutory duties then it is vital that it allows Scotland’s pollution watchdog to speak out on such matters. At the end of the day there has to be a duty to ensure that there are enough competent staff to oversee the safe running of Scotland’s sewage network.”
Scottish Water stoutly defended its plans for job cuts, claiming they would be achieved by improving efficiency, not risking safety. About £14 million has already been invested in improving the performance of the 10 foulest- smelling plants over the last two years, with a further £23m due over the next two years.
Geoff Aitkenhead, asset management director of Scottish Water, accepted that smells from sewage works were sometimes unpleasant and offensive. “It has upset a number of our customers. That is a concern to us and we’ve taken their concerns very seriously,” he told the Sunday Herald.
He said smells were now a growing problem for water authorities across the UK and promised that Scottish Water would combat them as best it could. The new treatment works built to cut the amount of raw sewage being pumped into the sea had suffered teething problems, and other plants were simply very old, he said.
“We’ve got some learning to do,” Aitkenhead admitted, though he blamed part of the problem on the number of houses that were built immediately next to sewage plants.
“It would be preferable if there were a cordon sanitaire around sewage treatment works, an area on which houses are not built.”
Conscious that the issue is rising up the political agenda, the Executive has promised to issue new guidance on combating smelly sewage works early next year. Though this will be welcomed by campaigners, it may need more than a voluntary code of practice to solve the problem.
“Odour has been a much neglected area. That’s why it has been possible for the operators to avoid doing anything,” said Labour MSP, Susan Deacon. The former health minister has been helping residents complaining about the Seafield works in her Edinburgh East and Musselburgh constituency.
“This is a big issue for thousands of people in many communities across Scotland. Pressure will continue to mount until the Scottish Executive and Scottish Water take action.
“People are just not prepared to tolerate these smells,” she declared.
Like many of her neighbours, Linda Tarbuck is fed up. “People have been marching up the high street with a giant turd,” she said. “We don’t want a tinpot, throw-five-pence-at-it solution. We want it fixed.”
SMELLY SEWAGE WORKS
Received legal notice or warning letters
1. Seafield, Edinburgh
2. Meadowhead, Irvine
3. Daldowie, Glasgow
Complaints being pursued
4. Shieldhall, Glasgow
5. Troqueer, Dumfries
6. Hatton, Dundee
8. Levenmouth, Fife
Complaints under investigation
Complaints referred to local authorities
11. Nigg, Aberdeen
14. Dalmuir, Glasgow
Problems said to be resolved
26. Coal Spit, Fort William
28. Dalderse, Falkirk
Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency
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