The public water company has been fined more than £240,000 for 47 spills, leaks and discharges between 2005 and 2014. It has been formally admonished by courts for four further incidents.
Recent offences include chlorine discharges that killed over 1,000 young trout and salmon in the Alva Burn near Alloa, sewage contamination of the River Kelvin in Kirkintilloch, and leaks of over 10,000 litres of lethal sulphuric acid into the River Devon in Clackmannanshire.
The average fine paid by Scottish Water over the ten years was £4,700, with fines for 28 of the pollution breaches below that. The company, which is owned by the Scottish Government, turns over £1 billion a year.
The relatively low level of the fines has prompted concerns that they are failing to deter Scottish Water from making blunders that annihilate wildlife. One environmental group is now calling for the company’s senior managers to be made personally liable for pollution.
Andrew Graham-Stewart, director of the anglers’ organisation, Salmon and Trout Association (Scotland), said that Scottish Water’s relentless pollution offences did not inspire confidence. “The organisation's record over the last ten years amounts to a depressing catalogue of failures to curtail breaches,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“For a public utility, fines are of little, if any, consequence. We fear that an improvement is unlikely unless the regulatory regime is altered so that Scottish Water's senior managers and directors are held personally responsible and liable.”
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued that the fines were failing to concentrate the minds of senior executives on cleaning up their act. “It is deeply disappointing that one of Scotland's biggest polluters is a body owned by the people of Scotland,” he said.
“It is ironic that water charge payers are funding Scottish Water's fines. More public investment in the infrastructure is needed and could avoid public money going round in pointless circles.”
A list of the 51 punishments for pollution offences imposed on Scottish Water between 2005 and 2014 was provided by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, Keith Brown MSP, in answer to a parliamentary question by his Labour shadow, Mary Fee MSP (see table below).
Fee demanded that Brown “come clean” on the problem. “His government's oversight of Scottish Water has led to spiraling pollution and rocketing fines - at the taxpayers’ expense,” she said.
“The Scottish Government must come before parliament and outline a solution. Keith Brown has been served notice of his government's failure at Scottish Water. He must act - the people of Scotland won't swallow any excuses.”
Scottish Water, however, argued that it had reduced the number of “non-compliant” sewage works by 90 per cent over the last ten years, and had seen a 23 per cent drop in pollution incidents in the last year. It had invested more than £1 billion since 2002 to deliver “substantial improvements” to Scotland’s environment.
“As a consequence we are no longer the principal pressure on Scotland’s water environment,” said Scottish Water’s chief operating officer, Peter Farrer. “We remain committed to supporting Scotland’s water quality objectives, with a minimum investment of £490 million to protect and enhance the environment.”
He suggested that it was difficult to compare the company’s pollution with that from others, as it had more environmental permits. “We maintain a significant network, including more than 2,000 treatment works and over 60,000 miles of water pipes and sewers,” Farrer pointed out.
“Where a pollution incident has occurred we work closely with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and other stakeholders to investigate, resolve and clean up any watercourse affected, while we have robust emergency procedures to ensure the safety of the public and protection of the environment.”
The Scottish Government agreed that Scottish Water’s compliance with pollution rules had “significantly improved” in the last ten years. “Any pollution incident is taken extremely seriously and thoroughly investigated,” said a government spokeswoman.
Sepa stressed that Scottish Water had to keep improving its performance. “When significant pollution events occur, we may present a case to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration,” said Sepa’s area manager, Colin Anderson. “We can also employ other forms of enforcement action where necessary to ensure that remedial work takes place.”
A major spillage of sewage sludge from one of Scottish Water’s treatment works caused the public to be banned from a lowland loch, popular as a nature reserve, salmon fishery and water sports centre.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) barred access to Castle Semple Loch in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, in 2010 because of health risks from the sludge. Scottish Water pled guilty to two breaches of pollution law and was fined £20,000 at Paisley Sheriff Court in April 2014.
The loch was a very sensitive location, according to Sepa’s investigating officer, John McKechnie. “By failing to ensure the sewage works were maintained and fully operational, Scottish Water created a very significant pollution event, caused a local amenity to be closed for over a week, and created a great deal of concern amongst members of the local community,” he said.
Over a thousand fish were killed by spillages of chlorinated water from a reservoir into the Alva Burn near Alloa in 2013. Scottish Water pled guilty to the toxic pollution and was fined £6,500 in July 2014.
Sepa pointed out that chlorine levels in the burn were more than ten times the lethal limit for young trout and salmon. Earthworms, slugs and insects were also killed, it said, and fish stocks would take “several years” to naturally regenerate.
Sepa’s investigating officer, Callum Waddell, accused Scottish Water of failing to treat water with neutralising chemicals before discharging it. “Staff failed to recognise environmental harm, or to mitigate pollution risks,” he said.
Scottish Water was fined £12,000 in May 2014 after pleading guilty to polluting Purgatory Burn near Kirkintilloch with a series of sewage discharges in 2013. Sepa inspectors found a bad smell, discoloured water over 200 yards and “a dark plume of contaminated water” going into the River Kelvin.
“The detrimental impact on the Purgatory Burn and River Kelvin as a result of the sewage has been significant,” said Sepa’s Barry O’Connor. “Evidence gathered by Sepa’s ecology team indicated that the watercourse had become grossly polluted.”
Scottish Water was fined £6,000 at Stirling Sheriff Court in April 2014 for causing untreated sewage to contaminate the Dragon Burn, a tributary of the River Teith. Downstream from a sewer overflow, the burn ran grey amidst fungus, according to Sepa.
A leak of over 10,000 litres of highly concentrated sulphuric acid from a water treatment plant killed trout in the River Devon in Clackmannanshire in 2011. Scottish Water was fined £10,000 for this and another pollution incident at Alloa Sheriff Court in January 2014.
Scottish Water’s pollution fines
year / number of fines or admonishments / total fines / average fine
2005 / 10 / £41,500 / £4,150
2006 / 7 / £31,500 / £4,500
2007 / 3 / £18,000 / £6,000
2008 / 5 / £17,500 / £3,500
2009 / 6 / £12,200 / £2,033
2010 / 6 / £32,367 / £5,394
2011 / 5 / £15,500 / £3,100
2012 / 3 / £27,500 / £9,167
2013 / 2 / £9,750 / £4,875
2014 / 4 / £34,500 / £8,625
Total / 51 / £240,317 / £4,712
source Scottish Government