Exclusive, 09 July 2013
Scottish ministers have been warned by their environmental advisers that they risk being sued for giving the go-ahead for a major new freight terminal without examining the damage it could inflict on vital bird colonies.
Ministers have approved plans for an £85 million container terminal at Rosyth in Fife before assessing the impact of dredging a 9.5-metre deep channel essential to allow ships access to the terminal. There are fears that underwater landslides could ruin nearby mudflats used by internationally important populations of shelducks, curlews, oystercatchers and other birds.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government’s wildlife agency, has expressed “serious reservations” about ministers approving the terminal before they know the dangers of the dredging. “We believe that proceeding in this way may expose ministers to unnecessary risk,” said SNH’s Forth manager, Iain Rennick, referring to the risk of legal action.
Dredging could have a “likely significant effect” on the mudflats in the Firth of Forth special protection area for birds, he pointed out. An “appropriate assessment” of the impacts was required under European law.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), approving the terminal without assessing the dredging was like permitting a new railway station without working out where the tracks would go. “This seems pretty daft,” said Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland.
“It’s a classic example of a lack of joined-up thinking,” he added. “The whole project should have been considered together.”
Smith pointed out that permission was being given to allow the onshore terminal to be built, but not the dredged channel vital to allow ships to berth. “All RSPB Scotland has asked for is a proper assessment of what the dredging works might mean for the nearby protected wildlife site,” he said.
RSPB Scotland joined with SNH to object to the container terminal at a seven-week public inquiry last year. Last month ministers issued a formal letter of approval saying that the proposed terminal would improve the harbour and facilitate the “efficient and economical transport of goods by sea”.
But a member of a local group of objectors, Beryl Leatherland, accused the developer, the engineering giant Babcock, of “salami-slicing” its plans for the terminal and the dredging to give them an easy ride. “We are dismayed that the Scottish government has fallen for this sleight of hand,” she said.
“Our fear now is that this white elephant project will be shoed in without proper assessment or compensatory measures, benefitting no-one, and embarrassing Scottish ministers in Europe.”
Leatherland likened ministers’ backing for the Rosyth terminal with their support for US tycoon Donald Trump’s golf resort on the Aberdeenshire coast. They were backing Babcock “at the expense of local communities and the designated wildlife sites in their ill-judged quest for sustainable economic growth,” she argued.
It was revealed in May that Babcock, which is worth £40 billion, was demanding up to £500,000 of taxpayers’ money from SNH to help pay the firm’s legal expenses defending its plans. Ministers have rejected that claim.
The government’s Transport Scotland confirmed that ministers laid a harbour revision order for Rosyth before the Scottish Parliament on 20 June. It is likely to be considered by MSPs after the summer recess.
The environmental assessment of the proposed dredging work will be carried out by Marine Scotland when an application is made for a marine licence. “The works cannot begin until that licence is granted,” said a spokesman for Transport Scotland.
He added: “The construction of the container terminal will support local jobs and generate substantial local economic activity, as well as bringing significant benefits to the Scottish economy.”
Babcock suggested it would be “inappropriate” to comment on a parliamentary decision that was still to be taken. “However, we are confident that the final decision reached by the Scottish ministers will take cognisance of all information provided throughout the public local inquiry and subsequent consultation.”