SEPA and the Life Aquatic

The Gairloch community has taken to its beaches to demonstrate against Scottish Water’s plans to downgrade the current water treatment works to a system that will produce a dirtier discharge into the pristine waters of Loch Gairloch. Ewen Mclachlan on another SEPA failure.

When Bella invited me to pen my thoughts on life in the North Highlands I saw it as an opportunity to promote the hard-working individuals who bolster their communities into tackling problems that had previously been deemed insurmountable.

Having suffered decades of being dumped on, from on high by distant governance, whether that be from the bureaucrats in Inverness, Edinburgh, Westminster or Brussels these far flung communities have educated themselves, brought in expertise where required and quietly rolled up their collective sleeves to tackle the issues on the ground, where they can see the best solutions. There is a palpable air of competence and confidence fizzing away behind every social enterprise.

Couple this determination and awareness with improved digital communications and suddenly those voices in the forgotten North have the tools to make a lot of noise and embarrass those used to remotely making impactful decisions from afar.

All of the above has been exemplified this week by the good folk of Gairloch, who have witnessed the mainstream media catch up on what’s being doing the rounds locally on social media. That is, the community of Gairloch in Wester Ross have had enough of being dumped on by utility companies and the very agency charged with guarding their environment, SEPA. The bureaucrats at SEPA have recently approved Scottish Water proposals to discharge untreated sewage directly into the sea for some seven months of the year as a cost cutting measure. This planned downgrade of the community’s waste treatment plant is aimed at saving a few thousands pounds per year by switching off the ultra-violet filtration system that kills off much of the bacteria in our waste. As the EU directive on ‘designated beaches’ only covers the period from May to September as bathing season, Scottish Water have decided to count their pennies and switch of the UV filtration and direct all waste into a large settling tank, where they will physically remove the solid waste and then pump everything else into the sea. Health issues aside, for users who swim, sail, canoe, even walk their dogs on the beaches, this is a regressive step taking the battle to protect our oceans back decades.

Wester Ross like many of the areas covered by the North Coast 500 has been benefiting from the increase in tourists to the normally quiet Applecross peninsula, one of the main draws being the somewhat gulp inducing drive over the infamous Bealach na Bá mountain road.

This white knuckle drive isn’t the only attraction for outdoor thrill enthusiasts, the area boasts outstanding natural beauty conducive to walking, cycling, climbing, canoeing, sailing, wild swimming and of course snorkeling. Next month sees the second anniversary of UNESCO recognising 50,000 hectares of Wester Ross as a Biosphere Reserve. The waters around are teeming with sea life with regular appearances from a variety of Dolphins, Porpoises, Otters, Orcas, Minke Whales, Basking Sharks, Mussels, Scallops and native Oysters. Now Scottish Water want to empty sewage into their water.

The Snorkel Trail is also two years old. Thanks to social media, news of the clear waters and the amazing life aqautic have spread far and wide. The trail stretches from two beaches around Gairloch all the way up past the Summer Isles to Clachtoll bay North of Lochinver. The waters are so clear that photographs of the kelp, seaweed, urchins, starfish etcetera have somehow been passed off as local shots on the Thailand tourist board diving website.

Obviously, getting into the North West waters is a rather chilly experience, however a reasonably thick wetsuit does delay the onset of hypothermia and avid snorkellers can spend an hour or so chasing fish, crabs and ogling at the beauty beneath the surface.

Noel Hawkins, the Living Seas Communities officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust based in Ullapool, is the driving force behind the Snorkel Trail, and is dumbfounded at the SEPA decision, he says, “I think it is a backwards step, especially whilst we are moving forward in so many other ways in protecting the marine environment. This decision will simply undermine tourism and recreational sea use whilst damaging the reputation of Scottish seafood and fishing.”

The pupils of Ullapool primary school who have been at the forefront of awareness of just what society is dumping in our waters are veterans of several beach cleans. The pupils were the first to raise the prospect of removing plastic straws from the village bars, café’s, restaurants and even the CalMac ferry to Stornoway. This campaign has grown from small suggestions throughout Scotland and has reached the ears of the Scottish parliament, who have decided to replace plastic straws with biodegradable paper ones, that won’t end up dumped in our oceans.

Hawkins, summed up the concerns of the Gairloch community:

“It seems that profit is being prioritised over our seas, this decision goes against all the community efforts being carried out by volunteers that live in and visit coastal areas.

Instead of downgrading this treatment plant, we should be using it as a model to upgrade others. Ironically 2020 sees the ‘Year of Water and Seas’, this SEPA decision makes a joke of it all and sends out the message that we talk environmental protection but only do the minimum required. There’s little point in trying to remove plastic pollution from our oceans if all we are going to do is replace it with sewage.”

Scottish Government ministers have received a formal request to review SEPA’s decision on Scottish Waters application. If you are interested in helping the Gairloch community stop this SEPA sanctioned damage and wish to register an objection, please read the following:

The deadline for objections is Monday, 19th March to write to Ministers, with our objections. A copy must be sent to SEPA as well, within the same 21-day period from 26 February 2018.

Scottish Ministers are empowered to apply a wider public interest view to the decision and they should be asked to.
The address for notifying Scottish Ministers is:

Scottish Ministers
Scottish Government
Environment and Forestry Directorate
Environmental Quality Division, Area 1- D (North)
Victoria Quay, Edinburgh EH6 6QQ

Or by email: [email protected]

The address for sending copy notification to SEPA is:

The Registry
Scottish Environment Protection Agency
Graesser House, Dingwall Business Park
Fodderty Way, DINGWALL, IV15 9XB
Email: [email protected]

All with reference:
Proposed Determination of Application
Application for Variation of Authorisation
Reference Number: CAR/L/1002928

Comments (3)

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  1. Ann Rayner says:

    SEPA obviously has many faults but things could get a lot worse after Brexit as Westminster want to retain environmental protection powers.

  2. Susan Shaw says:

    I want to protest at plans to downgrade water treatment at Gairloch. This is something which will both harm the local community and vital tourism. Thus a very short sighted proposal.

    1. Willie says:

      Sadly you can protest all you want Susan but as you are now seeing SEPA is not the environmental protection agency it is held up to be.

      Money talks, too many things not to be looked at, the organisation is a Quango full of well paid sinecures.

      And dare I say it, full too of many who are only to happy to turn the other way to friends needing a favour. Nothing untoward you realise, just healthy discretion not dissimilar to similar discretion discharged by many of our councils.

      Big or small, don’t expect much from SEPA or the legislators who set it up.

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