The Dirty 360
Herald Scotland, by Rob Edwards
More than 360 industrial sites across Scotland have been officially condemned by the Scottish government’s green watchdog for failing to control pollution.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has named and shamed waste dumps, fish farms, sewage works, scrap yards and many others for breaking pollution rules with leaks, spills, smells and a host of other mishaps. Scores of companies have breached emission limits for two or three years running.
Among those criticised for their "poor" performances are the famous Scottish soup and jam company, Baxters, the Ineos petrochemical refinery at Grangemouth and the French-owned waste giant, Sita UK. Others include three well-known whisky distilleries – Glenfarclas, Glengoyne and Whyte & Mackay – three crematoria, an Edinburgh pharmaceutical factory and an organic brewery on the Black Isle.
"This continuing catalogue of environmental recklessness shows that Sepa and the SNP government are asleep at the wheel," said the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie.
Scotland’s air, water and land were being ruined by businesses cutting corners, he said. He warned the government not to cave in to companies with poor pollution records lobbying for weaker regulation.
Harvie said: "The trouble is the Scottish government doesn’t give two hoots about protecting the environment."
Sepa put its latest compliance assessment reports for 2011 online last week, rating 46 sites as "very poor", 170 as "poor" and 146 as "at risk" – 362 in all. Waste facilities make up the largest group, including 73 landfill sites, transfer and recycling plants plus 35 metal and vehicle recycling yards. They are criticised for failing to manage their businesses properly, resulting in pollution incidents, breaches of their licences and "offensive" odours. Effluent discharge limits are often exceeded, procedures ignored and records not kept.
The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management in Scotland, which represents professionals in the industry, praised Sepa’s "robust" reporting. Chairman Duncan Simpson said: "Where significant risk or actual harm has been identified, we would expect and support tough action by the regulator."
"It is important to stress, however, that the compliance assessment looks at a wide range of management and operational areas, for example site security, audit procedures, and paperwork. A low score does not mean that environmental harm has occurred."
Aquaculture emerges as a major polluting industry, with 56 salmon farms around the west coast and islands rated as poor or at risk. Seabed contamination surveys for many are assessed by Sepa as "unsatisfactory".
The Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which represents fish farmers, pointed out that 87% of the 415 farms assessed last year were rated excellent or good. "The seabed area used for the whole of the salmon farming sector is equal to one good-sized livestock farm," said the organisation’s chief executive, Scott Landsburgh. "Any impacts are minute, local and temporary."
As many as 50 public sewage works across the country have been censured by Sepa for their poor performances. Discharge limits for copper, ammonia and bacteria have been breached, sewers have overflowed, and bad practices uncovered.
But Scottish Water, which operates more than 1800 waste water treatment plants in Scotland, said its performance was improving. "We are investing more than £1 billion in waste water treatment and management, which will help enhance the performance of our waste water treatment works further and protect the environment," said a spokesman.
Some 58 dry cleaners are failing to submit annual returns on the potentially dangerous chemical solvents that they use to launder clothes. This has been branded "disappointing and quite unacceptable" by Murray Simpson, chief executive of the Textile Services Association which represents the industry.
The Baxters Food Group, based at Fochabers in Moray, was classed as "poor" by Sepa in 2011 because it failed to meet discharge limits for "suspended solids". The company accepted it had suffered "technical issues with our waste management process" but said these had been resolved by "significant investment".
The Glengoyne whisky distillery at Killearn, north of Glasgow, was assessed as poor after water courses were polluted while a new reed bed treatment system was being commissioned. According to its manager, Robbie Hughes, the system is now working properly.
The Whyte & MacKay distillery in Invergordon was rated as poor because of an unspecified "significant environmental event". It was said by Sepa to be "undertaking remedial action".
West Lothian Crematorium in Livingston was accused of "very poor compliance during 2011" due to repeated breaches in emissions, while Moray Crematorium in Broadley was criticised for the "poor condition" of its plant.
The Macfarlan Smith pharmaceutical factory in Edinburgh run by the Johnson Matthey company had a "high number" of spillages, Sepa said. In June it was named as one of the sites suspected of being linked to the city’s outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, which killed three people. It subsequently complied with an HSE improvement notice.
Another business condemned as poor because pollution caused "sewage fungus" is the Black Isle Brewery in Munlochy, which produces organic beer under the slogan ‘save the planet, drink organic’. It did not respond to requests for a comment.
Sepa assessed 2,691 sites in 2011, of which 67% were rated as excellent, 18% as good and 2% as broadly compliant. "A minority of operators are still not taking their environmental responsibilities seriously," said Sepa’s director of operations, Calum MacDonald. "We will not tolerate consistent failure at meeting our standards and will not shy away from enforcement action."
The Scottish government said its promised legislation to deliver better regulation would help Sepa be "more transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted".
The spokeswoman said: "It will also ensure more effective and efficient protection of the environment and reduce the regulatory burden on business." The government has also set up an environmental crime taskforce to review how to deal with those who damage the environment.
THE REPEAT OFFENDERS
The dirtiest dozen polluters are waste plants, landfill sites and cheese companies that have been reprimanded by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) for their poor performances for the last three years running.
Perhaps the worst is the energy-from-waste incinerator being commissioned by Scotgen at Dargavel in Dumfries. It has been given the lowest rating of "very poor" in 2011, 2010 and 2009 and has breached emission limits 200 times.
The plant’s operations have been curbed by Sepa until it can show that it can prevent pollution breaches. Scotgen has said that it is working with Sepa to resolve the problems.
The performance of French-owned waste company Sita UK at two sites – Binn Farm at Glenfarg in Perthshire and Stoneyhill in Peterhead – has been rated poor for the last three years. It has been accused of "significant breaches" of pollution permits.
Sita UK said it had made an "intense effort" in the last year "to put things right". A spokesman added: "Our understanding is that both of our sites have improved significantly."
The performance of the petrochemical refinery at Grangemouth run by the £17 billion British-based multinational, Ineos, has been condemned in 2011 and 2010.
Communications manager for Ineos, David East, pointed out that four of the five permits issued were assessed as good or excellent. The refinery was marked down because of one incident late in 2011.
He said: "The site has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in environmental improvements and will continue to do so to ensure it remains compliant with legislation."
INSPECTIONS CUT BY ONE-THIRD
The number of industrial sites inspected by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has been cut by a third in a year, prompting fears that pollution could be missed.
The number of fish farms, petrol stations, quarries, mineral plants, waste operations and other potentially polluting facilities checked by Sepa fell by 1,384 from 4,075 in 2010 to 2,691 in 2011.
Instead of being visited every year, some plants will only be inspected every five years.
The cutbacks were described as "dramatic" by Professor Andrew Watterson, who heads the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling. "This must be a concern and a potential threat to public health," he said.
Instead of better regulation, Sepa should aim for more effective regulation, Watterson said.
Sepa insisted that its reduced inspection regime would still be successful at combating pollution. A more "risk-based approach" would result in "more targeted, effective action against offenders", according to the agency’s director of operations, Calum MacDonald.