from Sunday Herald, 08 October 2006
SCOTLAND’S green watchdog played down the risks of radioactive contamination at a popular coastal resort in Fife following an 11th-hour intervention by government spin doctors.
Internal emails reveal the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) delayed and then altered a news release after it had been described as “not entirely helpful” by a senior Scottish Executive public relations official.
The release was to announce the publication of a “hazard assessment” of radioactive pollution at Dalgety Bay, a sailing centre used by thousands of families. Sepa’s original version said that the risk of the public coming into contact with the contamination was as high as “1 in 90 per year”.
But in the final version this was changed to say the likelihood of harm was “low”. Other wording in the release, issued on May 5, was amended to make the pollution sound less dangerous.
The Sunday Herald revealed last November that nearly 100 radiation hotspots had been found around the shore at Dalgety Bay. The area includes Scotland’s largest sailing club and a beach, and is next to a housing estate.
According to Sepa, the contamination comes from radioactive waste dumped by the nearby naval air base at Donibristle after it closed in 1959. The Ministry of Defence, however, has refused to accept responsibility for cleaning up the mess.
Sepa emailed a copy of its news release to the Executive on May 4, saying it would be issued the next day. This prompted the head of the Executive’s environment press desk, Neil Trotter, to contact Elizabeth Gray, from the Executive’s radioactive waste team.
He wanted “an urgent word” about Sepa’s release, he said, as it was “not entirely helpful”. Later the same day, Gray telephoned a senior Sepa radiation official and persuaded him not to issue the release as planned.
Gray pointed out that the Executive had not yet commented on the hazard assessment. “We will need to see any further news release in draft,” she told Trotter in an email.
At 8.48am on May 5, Trotter emailed Sepa’s press office, saying: “Grateful if you could halt any plans to publish the report or issue a press release until we have had a chance to discuss further.” As a result the release was delayed from 9am until after 1pm, by which time its wording had been significantly altered.
The original version said “the likelihood of coming into contact with a radioactive item is around 1 in 900 a year for the whole beach, and around 1 in 90 for the area with the greatest concentration.” It added that “the most likely effects of such an encounter would be a skin burn”.
The published version said: “The likelihood of harm to a member of the public is considered to be low.” Skin burns “may result” from “prolonged contact”, it suggested.
The original version reported Sepa’s hazard assessment supported recommendations “that public notice signs are erected”. But in the published version there is no mention of public signs.
The hazard assessment itself, published online by Sepa, highlighted the 1 in 900 and 1 in 90 estimates as its main findings. “The continued presence of radioactive items poses a realistic hazard to public health,” it concluded.
The emails were released by Sepa in response to a request from the Sunday Herald under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act. But the watchdog denied it was forced to alter its release.
“Sepa strongly refutes any suggestion we were asked to ‘tone down’ the news statement,” said a Sepa spokeswoman. “The content of Sepa press releases is decided by Sepa.”
She accepted, however, that the Executive had asked for the release to be withheld so it could be considered by officials. It was also sent to NHS Fife, Fife Council, the Health Protection Agency and the MoD, she pointed out.
Sepa had decided to use the line about the likelihood of harm being low instead of the actual probability estimates because it was “simpler”, the spokeswoman said. “Communicating risk is always difficult and complex.”
She added: “By their very nature, press releases are designed to draw attention to issues, not to explain the full details. The full statistical information about risk was published in the report, available on our website.”
Sepa’s position, however, was fiercely criticised by David Miller, a professor of sociology at Strathclyde University and an expert on government spin. “This is not about making things clearer, it’s about deceiving people, and it calls into question Sepa’s independence,” he said.
“It demonstrates an appalling subservience to the Executive’s diktat.”
The Executive insisted the content of Sepa’s press releases was entirely a matter for Sepa. “Executive communications teams work closely with partner organisations to co-ordinate communications activity, provide a more effective service to the media and better inform the public of the work that we do,” said a spokesman.
Download the emails between the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Scottish Executive here (700kB pdf). The exchanges about the Dalgety Bay news release are on pages 21-25.