Rural communities affected by sewage sludge spreading on agricultural land continue to wait for the Scottish Government to act on human and environmental health risks
Sewage sludge spreading – the problem
Sewage sludge or biosolids is a by-product of sewage and wastewater treatment. It is a source of nutrients for soil structure and its recycled use on agricultural land as fertiliser is often the preferred option over incineration or landfill in the UK and EU.
However, it needs to be regulated and managed appropriately as it contains a cocktail of potentially hazardous contaminants including heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, inorganic and organic contaminants, microplastics and human and animal pathogens. Its use was banned in the Netherlands in 1995 and in Switzerland in 2005. In April 2022, Maine become the first U.S State to ban the practice of using sewage sludge because it contains the hazardous ‘forever chemical’ PFAS and contaminated farms and groundwater beyond use.
In Scotland, there has been growing concern over the use of sewage sludge, the lack of regulation and enforcement, and the need for an updated review of potential environmental and human health hazards. Doreen Goldie and Jo Hirst, previously Chair and Treasurer of the Avonbridge and Standburn Community Council (ASCC), have been at the forefront of public action against sewage sludge for more than a decade. They have represented not only their community but communities around Scotland facing the same issues.
Doreen and Jo first began looking into the use of sewage sludge in 2009 when a local resident complained of excessive odours from nearby spreading. Further investigation uncovered issues affecting residents since 2004, across neighbouring areas and further afield in Aberdeen, Perthshire, Stirling, Renfrewshire, East Lothian, Dumfries and Galloway and Fife.
Main issues and concerns
This is a summary of the main issues and concerns that Doreen and Jo uncovered in their area.
- Breaching recommended volumes and frequency of spreading leading to potential soil contamination
- Strong odours in residential areas affecting everyday life and worsening health for people with long-term health conditions (e.g. cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Spreading in fields near the primary school resulting in cases of children being physically sick in the playground and their sports day being cancelled
- Spreading and stockpiling near water bodies with the potential for water pollution
- Spreading on livestock land potentially affecting animal health and development
- Poor regulation of sewage sludge transportation operators resulting in odours, spillages and hostile confrontations
- Instances of intimidation, aggression and physical harm against concerned citizens from operators spreading sewage sludge. This has resulted in a reluctance to report issues to the relevant authorities
- An outdated 2008 assessment of potential impacts on human health from sewage sludge not considering new research and emerging hazardous contaminants.
These ongoing issues seemed to be a combination of both the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the local authority not taking responsibility, not having adequate guidance or not having the capacity to take action.
“We need the guidelines and standards updated because we’re relying on guidance from 2001. It seems unreasonable to make SEPA the single regulatory body that’s going to be responsible for this because they don’t have the personnel and resources to regulate and enforce it” (Jo Hirst).
Doreen and Jo have worked tirelessly to hold public bodies accountable for regulating sewage sludge. This includes raising their concerns with MSPs, local authorities, SEPA and Scottish Water. Their work has resulted in several commitments to review sewage sludge use, but the two describe the responses as agonisingly slow and without any tangible results.
- In 2016, the Scottish Government published the Review of the storage and spreading of sewage sludge on land in Scotland – known as the Sludge Review. This acknowledged that ‘stakeholder feedback indicates that there is a need for greater consistency, and greater public confidence, in the way sewage sludge is handled and used’ (p.3)
21 key recommendations were made – none of which have been fully implemented.
- In 2018, in response to continued complaints from the ASCC, the Scottish Government commissioned The James Hutton Institute to produce an updated health risk assessment of sewage sludge. This included a consultation in which the ASCC agreed to participate, hopeful it would lead to improved regulation. The final report was in 5 parts.
This report was not made public.
Legal advice and assistance from ERCS
After more than a decade of pursuing every avenue for change, in June 2021, Doreen and Jo contacted our team at ERCS for legal advice .
ERCS assisted Doreen to make a freedom of information (FOI) request on 1 July 2021 to the Scottish Government to gain access to the final report. This was refused on the basis that they intended to publish the report within 12 weeks of her original request (as is legally allowed).
“ERCS was able to convey what we couldn’t in legal terms, which made people pay attention, especially the Scottish Government because we’ve done it so often and we’re getting nowhere” (Doreen Goldie).
12 weeks passed and the report was not published. ERCS then assisted Doreen with appealing to the failure to publish the report. It was eventually disclosed on 17 October 2021.
“A representative from the James Hutton Institute stated that, if it wasn’t for the fact that the FOI letter had come to the Scottish Government, they would have just shelved the report. We are still having issues with sewage sludge spreading to this day and ERCS’s involvement has kept the issue of sewage sludge on the agenda” (Doreen Goldie).
Once the report was made public online, the ASCC felt that it didn’t fully address public concerns regarding regulatory and enforcement failures. The report made a number of recommendations to mitigate risks to human health including odours, but none of these had been implemented.
With this information, ERCS contacted MSPs to ask parliamentary questions on both reports, including when the recommended actions would be implemented.
Where are we now
Following a letter to the Minister for the Environment and Land Reform, ERCS was informed that a consultation paper on the recommendations from the 2016 Sludge Review would be published by October 2022. This was subsequently delayed to January 2023.
Given this delay, in November 2022, ERCS submitted a representation to Environmental Standards Scotland regarding the failure to implement the recommendations of the Sludge Review. ERCS hopes that they will use their powers to intervene to ensure that the Scottish Government finally takes the necessary steps to address the significant and long-standing problems with the spreading of sewage sludge.
Voices for justice
Doreen and Jo talk about their exhaustion and frustration with the lack of action.
“Our current term of office has just come to an end at our community council, and we are not standing for the next four years. We’ve attended so many meetings and met so many people at so many levels from Local Authorities, public bodies, the Scottish Government and even the UN Special Rapporteur. We’ve done a huge amount in the area, but nobody else is willing to get involved. And I can’t afford to spend, the rest of my life doing this…” (Doreen Goldie and Jo Hirst).
Their asks of the Scottish Government have remained the same:
- Assess the environmental contamination risks and impacts on human and animal health
- Update the regulations and guidance and ensure they are properly monitored and enforced
ERCS thanks Doreen and Jo for taking the time to talk to Cornell Hanxomphou, ERCS Rights Officer, and for their ongoing fight for environmental justice.
Written by Cornell Hanxomphou, Rights Officer, November 2022
Key events and reports relevant to the use of sewage sludge
- 2004 – Petition raised in the Scottish Government by communities in the Borders concerned with sewage sludge spreading
- 2014 – ASCC and six other community councils wrote a letter to the Scottish Government raising concerns about the impacts on human health and a lack of effective regulation
- 2015 – A petition (PE01563) concerning the practice of sewage sludge spreading is raised with the Scottish Government by ASCC
- 2016 – The Review of the storage and spreading of sewage sludge on land in Scotland (Sludge Review) with 21 recommendations is published by the Scottish Government
- 2017 – The UN Special Rapporteur publishes a report on The implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes on his mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: comments by the State . This includes mentions of ASCC’s contact with the Scottish Government, the 2016 Sludge Review and its 21 recommendations. It states SEPA’s recognition of the issues and the steps that it will take to enact the recommendations.
- 2018 – In response to continued complaints from ASCC, the Scottish Government commissioned The James Hutton Institute to produce The spreading of sewage sludge to land (CR/2016/23), an updated health risk assessment of sewage sludge that includes odours
- 2022 – ERCS submitted a representation to Environmental Standards Scotland regarding the failure to implement the recommendations of the Sludge Review