The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has condemned the performance of distilleries and golf courses across the country as “poor” because they have broken the rules by taking more water than permitted. Farmers and other businesses have also come under fire.
Sepa has further criticised more than 200 operators for failing to say how much water they used. They include more farmers, golf courses and distilleries, as well as Edinburgh Zoo, Scone Palace in Perth and the US property tycoon, Donald Trump.
Sepa regulates the removal of water from streams, rivers, lochs and the ground to protect wildlife, limit pollution and ensure that the precious natural resource is fairly shared. It will take legal enforcement action against businesses that persistently fail to comply, it warns.
When Sepa published its 2013 assessments of the environmental performances of Scottish businesses last November, it kept the names and ratings of 961 water operations secret “for reasons of national security”. But it has now released a list of the assessments to the Sunday Herald in response to a request under freedom of information law.
It reveals that 39 sites were rated as poor, including 22 farms, eight whisky plants, three golf courses, the famed Fochabers soup company, Baxters, and others. They were all guilty of breaching their licences by using more water than permitted in 2013.
Five of the eight whisky plants are owned by the British drinks giant, Diageo, including three distilleries on Speyside, one in Alness used for Johnnie Walker whisky and a barley malting plant on Islay supplying most of the island’s renown distilleries. Two more of the offending plants are Chivas Brothers distilleries on Speyside, owned by the French company, Pernod Ricard.
The three golf courses that breached their water licences in 2103 were Carnoustie Golf Links in Angus, Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth and Roxburghe Golf Course in the Scottish Borders. The performance of a further 12 courses - including Trump’s at Menie in Aberdeenshire and some in St Andrews - were said by Sepa to be unsatisfactory because they failed to provide information they should have done on water usage.
Sepa assessed a total of 215 operations as “at risk” because they failed to return data in 2013. Among them were Edinburgh Zoo, Scone Palace and its horse-racing course in Perth (see tables below).
The offenders were lambasted by the environmental group, Friends of the Earth Scotland. “It is very disappointing to see household names among those that can't be bothered to report and those that haven't got a grip of this problem,” said the group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“There is no excuse at all for the iconic whisky and golf industries not to be living up to the high environmental standards that they trade on worldwide. Scotland risks trouble with European laws if we do not get this right.”
Dixon pointed out that demand for water had to be carefully managed to make sure there was enough for wildlife. “Companies taking too much water are putting fish, water birds, plants and insects at risk, as well as frustrating other legitimate water users,” he said.
He was backed up by Dr Sarah Hendry, a law lecturer from Dundee University’s Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science. “Water abstraction is managed to protect river flows and loch levels, which in turn protects aquatic flora and fauna, and the ecosystem services that freshwater resources provide,” she said.
“Businesses are expected to comply with all their environmental regulations, including reporting requirements, and failing to do so would give them an unfair advantage over competitors, as well as depriving both regulators and the public of information that should be in the public domain.”
Sepa is planning to post its assessments of water abstracters online when a freedom of information review has been completed. The purpose of licensing them was to prevent watercourses from drying up, harming wildlife and being less able to dilute pollutants, it said.
Sepa’s area manager, Colin Anderson, pointed out that most of the 27 per cent of operators classed as non-complaint in 2013 had failed to submit data. “To improve this figure, Sepa actively engaged with operators to ensure there is an awareness of the need to supply data returns,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“Sepa will continue to work with partner organisations in order to improve the rate of data being returned and enforcement action will be taken as appropriate for operators who persistently fail to comply.”
The Scotch Whisky Association, which represents the industry, insisted that it was committed to protecting the environment. “We are obviously disappointed if, on occasions, the highest possible standards aren’t achieved,” said a spokeswoman.
“The industry works closely with Sepa and other relevant organisations to ensure it goes above and beyond compliance requirements. Where there is room for further improvement, we will work to raise standards even higher.”
According to Diageo, the problems at its plants had not caused environmental harm. “Water is the life-blood of our business and we take the responsible stewardship of water extremely seriously,” said the company’s distilling manager Keith Miller.
“The incidents identified were caused by specific short-term issues which were resolved to Sepa’s satisfaction. Across our business we abstracted significantly less water than the Sepa licences allow.
“We monitor our water abstraction very closely and where issues do occasionally arise we take immediate and strong action to resolve them. We are determined to protect water quality for all users and for wildlife.”
Chivas Brothers insisted it took its environmental responsibilities seriously. “It worked closely with Sepa at the time to rectify this issue, and bring its water usage into compliance,” said a company spokesman. “This remains the case with both distilleries at present.”
The Scottish Golf Union had made member clubs aware of the requirements to register water abstractions. “We encourage all clubs to ensure they comply with permitted levels and regularly submit their data as requested,” said a union spokesman.
“We are confident that the golf sector as a whole is not having an adverse effect on Scottish ground waters. In the cases highlighted we know work with Sepa on their specific issue has been undertaken to meet requirements going forward.”
John Thomson, the captain of Moray Golf Club, stressed that the club was a responsible user of water and had never exceeded its annual limit. He accepted that too much water had been taken in March 2013.
“In our defence we didn't actually use the water, we just stored it,” he said. “We have put in place the measures whereby any future breach simply won't happen.”
According to the Golf Environment Organisation, which encourages courses to act sustainably, Carnoustie Golf Links had “cleared up their issue” with Sepa. “We will remind clubs that they should report their data on time and in the manner required by Sepa, and that they should not use more water than permitted,” said the organisation’s project manager, Richard Allison.
The National Farmers Union in Scotland pointed out that most of Scotland’s watercourses had not been impacted by taking water for irrigation. In the small number of cases where that had occurred “we are encouraging our members to work collaboratively with Sepa to share the resource in manner that best protects the environment whilst still allowing production of food,” said the union’s deputy director of policy, Andrew Bauer.
“NFU Scotland has been working with Sepa to make the water abstraction reporting process as straightforward as possible, and has encouraged all members with abstraction licences to comply with all the conditions.”
Baxters was reviewing its performance to ensure compliance. “We have invested significantly in the effluent plant at Fochabers in recent years to improve environmental performance,” said a company spokeswoman.
Edinburgh Zoo blamed a faulty automatic metre reader for its breaches in 2013, but insisted that its overall performance had been excellent. Scone Palace, which is owned by Lord Mansfield and has won a green tourism award, declined to comment. The Trump Organisation did not respond to a request to comment.
Sites that broke the rules on water
site / owner / official rating / problems
Diageo Cragganmore Distillery, Speyside / poor / licence breaches
Diageo Dailuaine Distillery, Speyside / poor / leak
Diageo Glendullan Distillery, Speyside / poor / faulty valve, many breaches
Diageo Teaninich Distillery, Alness / poor / “gross failures”
Diageo Port Ellen Maltings, Isle of Islay / poor / licence breaches
Chivas Brothers Miltonduff Distillery, Speyside / very poor / licence breaches
Chivas Brothers Longmorn Distillery, Speyside / poor / licence breaches
Glengoyne Distillery, Killearn / poor / incident, breaches
Carnoustie Golf Links, Angus / poor / licence breaches
Moray Golf Club, Lossiemouth / poor / licence breaches
Roxburghe Golf Course, Scottish Borders / poor / “significant breaches”
Baxters, Fochabers, Moray / poor / licence breaches
Sites criticised for failing to provide data
Menie Golf Course, Aberdeenshire
Montrose Golf Links
Brechin Golf Club, Angus
Monifieth Golf Links, Angus
Panmure Golf Club, Angus
Aberdour Golf Club, Fife
St Andrews Links Trust, Fife
Old Course Hotel and Spa, St Andrews
St Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa, Fife
Elmwood Golf Course, Fife
Kingsbarns Golf Links, Fife
Longniddry Golf Club, East Lothian
Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William
Deanston Distillery, Stirling
Glencadam Distillery, Angus
Isle of Jura Distillery
Perth Racecourse, Scone Palace, Perth
Scone Palace, Perth
The spreadsheet assessing water operators released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) can be dowloaded here (74KB Excel). This story was followed up by WhiskyCask. On 30 January 2015, Sepa also made the data available on its website.