For over two years, our community action group Save Our Shore Leith (SOSLeith), supported by the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS), has been fighting against the longstanding sewage pollution in the Water of Leith discharged from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
Despite providing irrefutable evidence of faecal contamination in water and silt samples from the river, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has repeatedly dismissed our complaints. SEPA’s oversight body, Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), has upheld this dismissal, and the Scottish Government has failed to act.
Meanwhile, Scottish Water, which is responsible for the sewage pollution, has evaded responsibility.
Sewage-polluted silt filling up the river in Leith
Our journey began two years ago when a retired councillor alerted us about eight CSOs discharging sewage directly into the Water of Leith along The Shore in Edinburgh, where many of our members live. This densely populated area is a major tourist destination and hosts a thriving business community. An additional 65 CSOs lie upstream along the Water of Leith. These are discharging sewage along the entire waterway which passes through private gardens, public parks and iconic places such as Dean Village towards The Shore.
The river slows down at The Shore, where it pools in front of a tidal gate. Here, silt that would otherwise disperse into the sea has accumulated for 60 years since the installation of the gate and filled up the river. In some areas, the water’s depth has been reduced from seven meters historically to a mere few centimetres now, replaced by silt. It is highly likely that sewage pouring into the Water of Leith from the CSOs is being trapped in the silt from this stagnation, contaminating it.
Community group raises alarm
Driven by our commitment to safeguarding a clean and healthy environment for the people who live and work at The Shore, SOSLeith raised crucial questions:
- How much sewage is being released into the Water of Leith, how often, and what are the potential health impacts on human and environmental well-being?
- Where is the evidence from monitoring sewage discharges?
- Who is responsible for developing a clear action plan to mitigate CSO spillage into the Water of Leith?
- In the interim, what level of sewage contamination is our community expected to tolerate, and what are the associated health risks?
In response to these concerns, SOSLeith funded independent water sampling, which confirmed faecal contamination in the Water of Leith.
Scottish Water evades responsibility
We asked Scottish Water what it intended to do about the CSOs polluting our neighbourhood.
Scottish Water first agreed that they were a top priority for action but caveated that it would take time for them to decide whether an upgrade was feasible and when the work should start.
Since then, they have continued to flag the complexities and high cost of upgrading the CSOs with no timeline or concrete plan for stopping the sewage pollution.
SEPA refuses to investigate sewage pollution
Given the poor response from Scottish Water, we approached SEPA with the evidence of sewage pollution. We complained that Scottish Water had violated their ‘CAR licence’ (a type of licence required for activities that may affect the water environment). The licence prohibits the ‘significant deposition of sewage solids on the banks, bed or shore of the receiving waters’. SEPA disputed that the sewage-contaminated silt was a sewage solid and refused to investigate.
SEPA revealed that no testing is done in the slow-flowing section of the river at The Shore to confirm whether Scottish Water is managing sewage legally.
To date, despite SOSLeith repeatedly raising this issue, SEPA has not tested or addressed the sewage in the silt.
ESS refuses to intervene
Seeking further recourse, SOSLeith and ERCS approached ESS, which is responsible for overseeing that SEPA fulfils its duties. SEPA has a legal duty to monitor and enforce CAR licence compliance.
ESS upheld SEPA’s interpretation of ‘sewage solids’ and decided that it would not intervene.
We waited seven months for ESS to make this decision, which was given in a 4-page letter with limited explanation.
Community failed by regulators and still exposed to sewage
In conclusion, after two years of tirelessly advocating for a clean Water of Leith, we have been met with repeated dismissals and a lack of accountability from SEPA, ESS, and Scottish Water. Clear lab results indicating sewage contamination have been disregarded, and the burden of proof has been placed on our community group instead of the agencies responsible for protecting our waterways.
We are deeply concerned about the health of the river and the safety of those who utilise it. Our efforts to hold those responsible accountable have felt like shouting into the wind. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy protects itself while our community is exposed to a contaminated environment.
This situation in Leith highlights a broader issue of environmental accountability in Scotland. We demand transparent and effective environmental regulation that responds to public concerns.
Voice for Justice
Despite the repeated dismissals and lack of accountability from SEPA, ESS, Scottish Water, and the Scottish Government, SOSLeith remains steadfast in advocating for a clean Water of Leith. We do not accept the dismissive attitude and inaction from these agencies, which prioritise defending their lack of enforcement over upholding their mission of environmental protection.
We implore our elected representatives to uphold their responsibility to protect the environment and safeguard the health of their constituents.
The actions required from Scottish Water and SEPA are:
- Monitoring the amount and frequency of sewage being released into the Water of Leith from CSOs
- A detailed investigation into the potential health impacts of sewage contamination in the Water of Leith on human and environmental well-being
- Publishing a timeline for monitoring and testing for CSO sewage discharges
- An action plan for mitigating CSO spillage into the Water of Leith, outlining specific timelines and Key Performance Indicators
The Water of Leith deserves a clean and healthy future; we will not rest until we achieve it.
Header image – “Water of Leith” by Jim Jarvie
Figure 1 – “Sandport Bridge, 1910” courtesy of the Spirit of Leithers archive
Figure 2 – “Sandport Bridge, 2023” by Jim Jarvie