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July 1, 2009

Community fight for the right to breathe clean air

Leith Links Residents Association have spent years trying to force  Scottish Water, who operate Edinburgh’s sewage works, to stem an appalling stench that blights the lives of hundreds of Leithers at this time of year. The community have taken their case all the way to the Scottish Parliament and even had new legislation introduced.  But the stench remains and Scottish Water persist in making false promises that ‘odour incidents’ will soon be a thing of the past. Seems that Leith isn’t the only community to suffer from Scottish Water’s inaction

Rob Edwards

The following article was written by Rob Edwards (freelance journalist specialising in environmental issues) for his own web site

Thousands of people in Glasgow are being condemned to years of pungent pongs and pollution because because of a secret decision by Scottish Water to abandon investment in a dilapidated and overloaded sewage works.

Communities across Scotland are also suffering from smells and overflows at ageing or inadequate sewage works deprived of much-needed money. There have been a series of problems in Edinburgh, Inverness, Fife and Lanarkshire, while Scottish Water has frequently being prosecuted for pollution.

In Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre the water company has been humiliated by the consumer watchdog, Waterwatch Scotland. It has been ordered to apologise for repeatedly mismanaging sewage operations and “systematically trying to rubbish” the complaints of local people.

Now leaked extracts from Scottish Water’s latest business plan reveal that Dalmuir Waste Water Treatment Works in Clydebank will not be upgraded before 2014. This is despite the plant being in such a poor state that it breaches its operating licence, causes a stink and contaminates the Clyde.

The revelation has shocked and angered the local community and their MSPs, who accuse Scottish Water of misleading them about plans for Dalmuir. “It’s disgusting, disgraceful and out of order,” according to the chair of the local tenants’ association, Daniel Lennie.

“For the next few years they are going to continue to pollute this area and that’s shameful, absolutely shameful,” he said. “This stuff makes you ill. If you are old or young, it will make you sick, it will make you vomit.”

People living around Dalmuir sewage works have been complaining about bad smells for ten years. In the summer they say they can’t sit in the open, or send children out to play because the stench is so awful.

Dalmuir has also been breaching legal limits on the waste it discharges into the Clyde. In December the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency slapped an enforcement notice on the plant, obliging it to clean up its effluent.

In response to pressure from MSPs, ministers and regulators, Scottish Water has repeatedly promised to tackle the problems at Dalmuir. At a local public meeting last month it said that it was currently investing over £2 million in improvements.

But what the water company didn’t say is what is disclosed by its leaked business plan – that no investment is planned for much-needed upgrades at Dalmuir between 2010 and 2014. As a result, Dalmuir should be excluded from its “overall performance assessment” by regulators, the plan states.

“We are not currently progressing with the necessary enhancement investment to achieve robust compliance with the Controlled Activities Regulations licence at Dalmuir as this w ould not be in customers’ interest until the wider Glasgow strategic waste water study is concluded,” the plan says.

“Whilst we plan to use all available contractual measures to improve the reliability of compliance at Dalmuir, which is managed under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract, it is likely that the plant will not achieve sustained compliance because it is undersized for the flows requiring full treatment.”

A second internal report obtained under freedom of information legislation reveals a litany of technical problems at Dalmuir. An audit of the plant for Scottish Water by the Water Research Centre in August 2007 found numerous blockages, breakdowns and flaws.

“Lumps of sludge were seen floating on the top of tanks and causing blockages,” it said. Sixteen of 24 “bubbler” units used to dislodge accumulated sludge were out of operation because of defects.

Another 2007 internal report on the Seafield sewage works in Edinburgh exposes a series of plant failures leading to breakdowns and blockages. Some equipment is “in poor condition” while “the overall screening plant is inadequate”.

According to Tommy Kane, a water industry researcher at Strathclyde University, there had been inadequate design, investment and management in sewage works. “Unfortunately, the people and environment are paying the price of the apparent failure of PFI contracts,” he said.

When shown the leaked business plan, Kane described it as “unbelievable”. He added: “This calls into question the commitment of Scottish Water and the economic regulator to ensure a base service for all water users.”

The Scottish Nationalist MSP for the West of Scotland, Gil Paterson, has written angrily to the Scottish government’s environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham, demanding an investigation into Dalmuir. He accused Scottish Water of “glossing over the real issue in an attempt to fool not just me but the public”.

He said: “I feel that if this report is accurate I have been let down and my trust has been abused by Scottish Water to hide the truth from the public.”

Scottish Water was accused of “muddling through” by the Labour MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, Des McNulty. “The people of Dalmuir have suffered because the supposed experts have got it wrong,” he said.

Scottish Water pointed out that Dalmuir would be part of a major strategic review of waste water treatment in Glasgow. “That study will take place during the 2010-14 period and it would be inappropriate to spend large amounts of money at Dalmuir before then,” said the company’s head of corporate affairs, Helen Lennox.

“At the end of last year Saur Services Glasgow Ltd, our PFI partners at Dalmuir, committed over £2m to be used to help improve the plant’s operability in the short-term.” Some £20 million is also being invested in improvements at Seafield.