The Scottish Environment Protection Agency have sparked outrage in Gairloch in Wester Ross by approving Scottish Water’s plans to discharge untreated sewage into local bathing waters.
The utility intends to replace the existing membrane filtration system, which has been in place for over 10 years, with a septic tank and outfall pipe. Last week, SEPA approved their proposal.
Dr Karen Buchanan, curator of Gairloch Heritage Museum, said the whole community was “vehemently” opposed to the discharging of raw sewage. In 2016, the Scottish Government recognised beaches at Gairloch and Big Sands as accredited bathing waters.
She added: “Scottish Water are proposing to downgrade our water treatment works in Gairloch. This means that for seven months of the year, untreated sewage will be pumped directly into the loch. At the moment, we have a vastly-superior system which cleans the water to drinking level standard before it is released. But Scottish Water say they will now only operate that during the summer months.
“We had two of our beaches promoted to designated bathing beach status last year and this measure is going to threaten that. The loch is used all year round for swimming, kayaking, fishing etc — not just in summer. We think that protecting our environment is more important than saving Scottish Water a few thousand pounds a year.
“The community council and many, many members of our community have written to SEPA to oppose this measure. A petition last year raised almost 8,000 signatures — eight times as many people as live in Gairloch.”
In response, a spokesman for SEPA said: “Since May 2016, SEPA has been considering an application by Scottish Water to vary the licence for Gairloch sewage treatment works. SEPA experts in water quality have assessed the impact of the proposed treatment system and are satisfied that an appropriate level of protection is in place for the designated bathing waters and wildlife habitats. As such SEPA is proposing to grant the application.
“There will be no deterioration in the ‘good’ status of Loch Gairloch as a result of the licence variation, and the discharge will still be treated to enhanced standards during the bathing waters season (June to September) in order to protect the ‘excellent’ status of the bathing waters at Sand Beach and Gairloch Beach. However, maintaining this enhanced level of treatment for a full 12 months would result in other impacts such as increased use of energy and materials, and would not be consistent with standards applied at other comparable locations across Scotland.”
The statement added: “As part of the application for the licence variation SEPA carefully considered a number of written representations. Those who made representations have been provided with details of the proposal to grant the application and have the opportunity to make final representations to Scottish Ministers in the event that they maintain their objection.”
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant is contacting Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham about Scottish Water’s intentions.
Although Scottish Water reassured Mrs Grant yesterday (Wednesday) that no firm decision had been made as yet on its future sewage treatment plans, she is concerned that the cost of the year-round system might make the utility consider the part-time option.
She added: “Last year I was hopeful that the water authority would progress its renewable energy proposals so as to cut the cost of year-round ultra-violet treatment. However, I am now unsure whether this will happen so I’m appealing to the Environment Secretary to look at the proposals and ensure that this beautiful part of the Highlands gets the best possible system.
“To me it seems strange to offer a high level of treatment for only part of the year when activities like wild swimming are taking off at any time of year.”