Dangerous levels of sewage pollution have been detected at 18 of Scotland’s most attractive and popular beaches this summer, according to new figures from the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
Four of the bathing waters have been so contaminated that they have now failed 35-year-old sewage safety limits for the season. They are Sandyhills in Dumfries and Galloway, Irvine in North Ayrshire, Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders and Lossiemouth East in Moray.
A further 14 beaches have also been badly polluted because they recorded single samples of seawater in breach of the safety limit (see table below). It takes two sample breaches to be deemed to have failed for the year.
The pollution comes from overflowing sewers and from farm animal faeces washed off the land by rain. It can cause stomach, skin or ear infections and in extreme cases can be lethal for surfers, bathers and paddlers.
“We are shocked and disappointed to hear that so many popular Scottish beaches and bathing waters have been polluted by sewage discharges this summer,” said Andy Cummins, from the campaign group, Surfers Against Sewage.
“This is a serious public health risk. With so many people using the coast to relax, surf and enjoy with their families, it’s vital that the alarming rate of raw sewage releases in Scotland is tackled immediately.”
Three of the bathing waters that failed for 2011 have repeatedly failed in previous years. Sandyhills failed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and this year has recorded three samples in breach of the limits for faecal coliforms.
The beach at Irvine also failed in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Sepa attributes this year’s failure to “heavy rainfall causing bacteria to be washed off both urban and agricultural areas into the River Irvine and then into Irvine Bay.”
Eyemouth previously failed in 2005 and 2007. This year’s failure is similarly blamed on “run-off from nearby land” and discharges from sewer pumps after heavy rainfall.
Lossiemouth East hasn’t failed the sewage limits before. According to Sepa, its poor performance in 2011 could be due to waste from livestock grazing on the banks of the River Lossie, as well as possibly spills from sewers.
Unfortunately, an electronic sign at Lossiemouth meant to warn the public when pollution was bad was “inoperable” on the three occasions when sewage levels breached safety limits in July and August. Sepa admitted that some of the signs now erected at 23 beaches had broken down.
“We are currently still experiencing problems at Saltcoats and Prestwick, where the signs are not working, and at Sandyhills and Dhoon Bay where the signs have intermittent communication faults,” said Sepa’s bathing waters manager, Calum McPhail.
He confirmed that 23 single samples had breached the sewage limit and that four bathing waters had failed for 2011. “Most problems have been due to urban and agricultural diffuse pollution caused by rainfall,” he added.
Scotland had experienced a very good start to the summer with long periods of sunshine, he argued. “However, as in previous years, wet weather has been a significant factor affecting the quality of bathing waters at some locations later in the season.”
Four bathing waters also failed in 2010, compared to five in 2009, and seven in 2008. Because the safety limits are due to be tightened, many more beaches are at risk of failing in future years.
“These latest results highlight the unacceptable human health threat in some of our coastal waters still posed by diluted raw sewage,” said Calum Duncan, from the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland.
“Over half the beaches tested last year were not recommended by us because of pollution and we believe combined sewer overflow pipes are partly to blame. We know of at least 120 Scottish coastal sites with one or more overflows.”
The society publishes an annual ‘Good Beach Guide’, partly based on Sepa’s monitoring data. It hopes that investment by Scottish Water over the next five years will help to cut pollution.
According to Scottish Water, there had been no “unlicensed discharges” from any of its plants this summer. It was planning to invest £1.1 billion in improvements between 2010 and 2015.
“Independent reports show that diffuse pollution is the biggest threat to Scotland’s water environment,” said Scottish Water’s wastewater manager, Rob Mustard.
“We are working to raise awareness of diffuse pollution. This includes encouraging farmers and landowners to reduce the use of chemicals and apply them carefully to prevent run-off causing pollution.”
The National Farmers Union in Scotland agreed it was “vitally important” for farmers to play a role in tackling pollution. “Over the last two years, the union has been working in partnership with both Sepa and Scottish government to raise awareness and improve practice to help reduce diffuse pollution risk,” said the union’s head of rural policy, Jonathan Hall.
“Given the very nature of land use and climate in Scotland - which are themselves linked - Scottish farmers are responding positively to the challenge of food production within necessary environmental standards.”
Four beaches that breached the sewage safety limits in 2011
Irvine, North Ayrshire
Sandyhills, Dumfries and Galloway
Eyemouth, Scottish Borders
Lossiemouth East, Moray
14 beaches that suffered sewage pollution
Saltcoats Ardrossan, North Ayrshire
Millport Bay, Cumbrae, North Ayrshire
Troon South Beach, South Ayrshire
Prestwick, South Ayrshire
Ayr South Beach, South Ayrshire
Heads of Ayr, South Ayrshire
Dhoon Bay, Dumfries and Galloway
Pease Bay, Scottish Borders
Elie Harbour and Earlsferry, Fife
Kinghorn Pettycur, Fife
St Andrews East Sands, Fife
Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
Rosemarkie, Fortrose, Highland