Chapter Three: Overview of Events
Timeline of events
3.1 With assistance from North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire, we compiled a timeline of events which we found helpful in contextualising events and is attached to this report. A summary of this timeline around the planning decision, the issues with blue water, the health concerns and public communications is presented here to provide an overview of events.
Summary of events around planning decision
3.2 The new Buchanan and St Ambrose High Schools along with the Townhead Community Centre were built on a brownfield site in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire and opened in November 2012.
3.3 This development was proceeded with following a generally accepted recognition that the previous location of St Ambrose High School was no longer fit for purpose. This led the local education authority North Lanarkshire Council to consider options for an alternative site at which to locate that school and the then Drumpark Additional Support Needs school. A range of options were considered, leading to the identification of the current site as the preferred location.
3.4 This required North Lanarkshire Council to go through a series of processes leading to the building of the schools of which the making, consideration and granting of a planning application and the entering into of a construction contract with Balfour Beatty are of relevance to this Review.
3.5 The planning application was for the erection of a secondary school, additional support needs secondary school, community facilities, playing fields, associated road access and parking site. The site is located at Drumpellier Country Park in the greenbelt. It comprises a 14 hectare site on the north east edge of the park, which extends to approximately 222 hectares. The site is bounded by Townhead Road and housing to the north, the park to the south and west, and a community centre and pavilion to the east on Mosshead Road. The school building is set back from Townhead Road. It covers approximately 20% of the site, with the remaining area comprising six sports pitches, landscaping, roads and car parking.
3.6 Preliminary work was undertaken in 2006 ahead of the planning application and included assessment of the risk of ground and water contamination. The area of ground concerned had at that time been grassed over and was in use as public open space for playing fields, dog walking and the like. However such assessments were matters of particular importance because of its previous use for landfill purposes up until 1972.
3.7 Necessary planning processes (including environmental health assessments, the mitigation work and building design) were gone through and North Lanarkshire Council agreed to grant planning permission, subject to conditions, following a report by officials on 15 April 2010, with permission granted on 9 June 2010.
3.8 The schools were then built by Balfour Beatty and opened to pupils on 5 November 2012.
Summary of events around blue water concerns
3.9 From the written evidence we reviewed, the first report of a problem with blue water was noted on 7 October 2013. There were a number of times subsequently when concerns were raised and samples taken but details of results are unavailable. These problems occurred in 2014, 2015 and 2016 with a recommendation to flush water through the taps until it ran clear. Running water through the taps only provided a temporary solution so the decision was taken to replace pipework in the most affected area of the schools.
3.10 However, the problem persisted. Further reports of concerns around discolouration of the water are noted in 2018 and further steps were taken to improve the plumbing in the building and provide an alternative source of drinking water. The issue was escalated to senior management in North Lanarkshire Council who ordered the replacement of the copper pipes in the school to eradicate the problem. Alternative sources of drinking water were supplied to the schools and a decision made to replace 1800 metres of internal pipework in the schools which, apart from the mains pipe supply in the schools, was completed over the Christmas holidays. Samples subsequent to pipe replacement were reported within tolerance levels in January 2019 and were therefore compliant with drinking water standards.
Summary of events around health concerns
3.11 In November 2018, NHS Lanarkshire public health department received an email from a GP about a patient with bladder cancer. The patient reported that four other members of staff in their school had bladder cancer and they had concern this might be linked to the "blue water" which had been a problem for some years. NHS Lanarkshire public health department led an investigation into possible health risks associated with the campus in several phases – first to confirm reports of blue tinge to water and determine cause, any associated health risk, and went on to assess copper in drinking water as a possible cause of the cancer (it was found not to be carcinogenic), then to investigate the cases with the possibility there might be another reason for the cluster. Their conclusion was the cluster was "what could be deemed the norm in a cross section of the population of a similar demographic to that of the school teaching population".
3.12 In March 2019, NHS Lanarkshire were asked for advice from a local GP regarding a pupil at Buchanan High School who was being investigated for sight loss and had a single positive test for arsenic in his urine. There was a concern this could be linked with the school. An in-depth investigation of this pupil and another, from St Ambrose, found no link between these test results and a health risk from attending the school.
Summary of public communications
3.13 North Lanarkshire Council wrote to parents and staff in November 2018 summarising the situation regarding blue water. In December 2018, concerns about "blue water" at the school were first published in the media. In February 2019, results of water sampling tests undertaken in November 2018 which revealed copper levels to be higher than permitted levels in two areas in the school were published in the media.
3.14 In May 2019, the Council issued a question and answer booklet to parents and staff providing more information. Public concern grew with publication of a media story which claimed a link between the apparent cancer cluster and the school and in the same article raised the concern from the mother of the pupil with sight loss about his positive test for arsenic. The newspaper raised a question whether this was also linked with the school.
3.15 MSPs in the local area were closely involved too in developing events, reflecting local concerns. The issue was raised in the Scottish Parliament. Some saw a wider read across to other developments that may or may not have been helpful. We come back to the role of local elected representatives in providing leadership in assisting the resolution of issues of contention at paragraphs 10.15 to 10.27.
3.16 Alarmed by these developments, local politicians began asking further questions of the public agencies and government. A public meeting was arranged for 6 June 2019 when representatives from North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire were present to explain their investigations and how they drew their conclusions that the school was considered safe. Later that month, a leaflet summarising this information was prepared and distributed to parents, pupils and staff and was posted on North Lanarkshire Council's website. Letters were sent to GPs and other clinicians in Lanarkshire and the Greater Glasgow and Clyde areas summarising the situation and recommending they assessed patients with links to the school in the usual way, referring for further investigation if clinically indicated.
Summary of concerns raised through the review process
3.17 In addition to the timeline of events described above, the review undertook more evidence gathering through emails, meetings and further testing, guided by expert advice. In this overview, we summarise the main issues which were raised with us.
3.18 As of 2 August 2019, the review team had received 443 emails from members of the public. 118 (26%) of responses were fully supportive of the review being undertaken and/or expressed appreciation for the schools and how they had handled the issue. The remaining responses expressed a range of concerns and worry for the school and the future education and health of their children, or for staff. This concern was revealed by 210 (47%) responses requesting tests for pupils and staff, for the site or for both. 60 (13%) emails were received from people conveying specific health concerns or who had lots of questions regarding their concerns over the safety of pupils and staff at the school - these concerns were received mainly parental concerns about their children's health, most commonly headaches, fatigue, nausea and nosebleeds. 18 (4%) emails were from staff members who emailed to provide background information, raise questions and describe how the situation had affected them. 15 (3%) emails were from parents who had either removed their child from the school or who wanted the school closed with immediate effect until the review was complete and reassured that the school site was safe. 13 (3%) emails indicated support for how well the school and council had handled the situation and expressed a view that the school was safe. The remaining 9 (2%) emails were a mixture of replies to the public from review team and emails from the public looking for specific answers to their questions regarding the review.
3.19 More detailed responses were also received from teachers' unions,, Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University and Ian Tasker at Scottish Hazards. These provided well-structured and detailed information on staff concerns, useful questions which we used to shape the investigations we undertook and a survey of pupils' symptoms which described a very similar pattern of health concerns as those we received through emails, providing us with confidence that our evidence gathering whilst not formalised research was sufficiently open to capture the main issues.
3.20 The automated email response included a note that any health issues should be followed up in the usual way, through local GPs. The list of health complaints raised by individuals in their emails was anonymised, tabulated and sent to NHS Lanarkshire and Health Protection Scotland for comment.
Face to face meetings
3.21 Face to face meetings took place in Coatbridge on 25 June and 27 June with around 50 parents, staff, unions and pupils from the two schools. These were held in confidence in order to allow attendees to be frank with us about their feelings, with notes taken for the review team but no formal minutes. On each day, we held an open drop-in session for those not attending other sessions.
3.22 We found these meetings to be immensely useful in deepening our understanding of the concerns, but also of the genuineness and the depth both of concern and support from a wide range of members of the community for the schools. It helped us gain a much better understanding of the ethos, culture, achievements and pride in these two school communities.
3.23 We were especially impressed by the eloquence, maturity, honesty and passion of the pupils who we met. They are a credit to the school communities concerned.
3.24 We realise that we could not speak to everyone and hear every voice. But we heard very different insights into, and very different perspectives of, the challenges facing the schools. We are satisfied that what we heard was fairly representative of the feelings of the community. It was important that we did so.
3.25 Many of the concerns were similar across the groups of people we met and can be summarised as follows:
- The blue water issue has been going on for a long time and despite reassurances from North Lanarkshire Council is still not properly sorted.
- Information put out by North Lanarkshire Council and NHS whilst helpful for many, raised more questions than answers for others.
- Media stories have been aggravating people's anxieties.
- Social media stories go unchallenged because some people who raised questions felt silenced.
- Many parents and staff were unaware the school was built on an old landfill site.
- There were reports that the methane gas alarm had been triggered but no evacuation of the building took place and indeed it seemed that there were no arrangements to do so.
- Settlement of the ground on the site has been noticeable and worrying. There are areas where the tarmac is cracking and doorways are needing repair because of bulging and caving of the earth underneath. There was concern this movement of the ground could release noxious substances and cause damage to the gas membrane.
- Bad odours emitting from certain areas of the school were reported.
- Water from some taps reported to have "black bits".
- Class numbers declined rapidly at St Ambrose High School as the situation ran on and Buchanan High School closed 9 days early because of staff action. This had a significant emotional impact on pupils and staff and was a concern for parents because they could see how this was affecting their children's education.
- Many parents, pupils and staff had mixed feelings about continuing to attend school when so many classmates were absent. Going through a picket line when staff were on strike felt particularly stressful.
- People wanted their schools re-opened but only if was safe to do so.
- Many were not reassured by the information given to them and were particularly upset that the representative of North Lanarkshire Council reported at the public meeting that they had first been informed of the problem with blue water in 2017, when it had been much earlier than this.
- The situation around the blue water had dragged on for far too long.
- Parents want their children tested to provide reassurance they have not been exposed to harmful substances. They were angry and frustrated because they were being told that GPs were refusing to test on the instructions of NHS Lanarkshire.
- There was a worry expressed about the future for the two schools and the Townhead Community Centre which is also located on the site and for people's longer term health from ingesting the water over years.
- Parents of younger children about to enter high school were wondering what school uniform to buy.
- Some asked what contingency plans were in place if the schools remained shut and wanted to know how they were going to be kept informed over the summer holidays.
3.26 Many of these concerns concurred with emails received by the review team which encouraged us to feel we had captured the main issues to address in our further investigations. A few provided further specific details about the location of bad odours, water supplies and ground issues which provided more detail to the testing and investigations which were subsequently undertaken. The overwhelming impression we were left with after these meetings was the feeling of heartache and stress for some parents, pupils, staff and the wider community generated by fear, uncertainty and, for some, a distrust in the explanations they were being given.