Spreading of sewage sludge to land - impacts on human health and the environment: community concerns

This workshop summary report is part of the research project undertaken by the James Hutton Institute on the impacts on human health and environment arising from the spreading of sewage sludge to land (CR/2016/23).

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What can we do?

Participants were divided into 4 groups and asked to discuss their issues and expectations loosely structured around "What can the project do, what can Scottish Water do, what can Scottish Government do and what can the community do"? Post-it notes were used again to enable all participants to take part and express themselves. Four researchers facilitated the discussions and took notes, while the remaining researcher sought to get an overview of all group discussions and summarise these.

The comments on the post-it notes can be found in appendix 3. The facilitators recorded that participants were keen that their concerns should reach the appropriate authorities (Scottish Government, local authority council, SEPA, Scottish Water) particularly around inadequate inspection and perceived lack of effective regulation.

Participants generally had no faith in the practice of self-testing of soil, believing that there is a conflict of interest. Some criticized the testing regime considering it to be neither independent nor objective and many appeared to think that rules are being flouted with one contractor in particular being, as expressed by one participant, "a law unto themselves".

There has been an apparent breakdown in trust between the community and the groups responsible for managing sludge applications to land (Scottish Water, PFI, Contractors, and SEPA) with neither SEPA nor Scottish Water [1] believed to be listening reactively to complaints and issues. In addition, it was said that no-one seems willing to either take responsibility or be held accountable when issues are raised. Overall the feeling was that a greater regulatory oversight of the industry is required, perhaps by incentivising good practice rather than penalising (or not, as many believed to be the case) bad practice. Participants also thought that individual community councils could exert more influence by being better organised, sharing information and being more cohesive.

In general, the inspection regime was characterised as inadequate and SEPA were said to be ineffective. A notable anecdote described one case where an inspector was subjected to intimidation from a land owner benefitting from the practice. 'They don't inspect enough; they should be out at all times doing spot checks; [we want] SEPA to turn-up on a Sunday!'…

There were allegations of intimidation of local residents by contractors, including children, and complaints about the number, size and condition of lorries going to and from the treatment plant. Some residents have been logging this activity and will continue to do so and questions were asked about where all the material was coming from.

Several participants were convinced that contractors exceed the recommended applications of sludge onto land, claiming to have observed thick layers of sludge, a noticeable drop in wildlife in some areas accompanied by unpleasant odour. Consequently, they suggested that much larger concentrations of contaminants are included in the project Risk Assessment Models than the regulatory concentrations used at present.

People were concerned about the potential effect of sewage sludge application on their health with some participants complaining of headaches and breathing difficulties during times of heavy application. There was unanimous agreement that the odour was of major concern and some residents claimed that they regularly experienced odour issues in their homes even with all doors and windows closed making them feel like 'prisoners in their own homes'.


Email: gary.gray@gov.scot

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