Edinburgh campaigners claim regulator 'failing' to tackle sewage spilling into Water of Leith

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Locals and campaigners are worried about health risk from sewage pouring into the Water of Leith.

A local campaign group has warned that Scotland's environmental regulator is failing to tackle sewage pollution into the Water of Leith.

It comes as new figures show more than 2,000 complaints about sewage in Scotland’s rivers, lochs and beaches were made to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) between 2019 and 2023.

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Dozens of reports about sewage spills were made in every region of the country – with the areas in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow seeing the most complaints.

There is growing anger among campaigners that water companies are allowed to discharge sewage via “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) during periods of heavy rain.

Save Our Shore Leith (SOS) said the country’s regulator must urgently investigate whether material getting discharged along with treated sewage poses a risk to human health.

Dr Jim Jarvie from the campaign group said: "Leith is one of the most densely populated areas of the country. For over two years, our community action group 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). 

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Dr Jarvie who lives near the Shore said: "We know 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. What worries us here is that the sewage discharges into silt, and that has been building up for around sixty years. They need to test it to see if there is a risk to human health from sewage related bacteria then get a plan for what is going to be done about it."

In the first nine months of 2019, there were 1,048 complaints to SEPA about sewage in Scotland’s rivers, according to data first obtained by in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Between July 2022 and September 2023, another 1,051 complaints were logged by the environmental regulator across Scotland’s nine regions.

The Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders region saw the highest number of complaints by the members of public and concerned organisations – with 262 reports made in the period between July 2022 and September 2023.

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Campaign group claims regulator failing to tackle sewage spilling into Water of Leith, as figures show Edinburgh among areas with highest number of sewage complaintsCampaign group claims regulator failing to tackle sewage spilling into Water of Leith, as figures show Edinburgh among areas with highest number of sewage complaints
Campaign group claims regulator failing to tackle sewage spilling into Water of Leith, as figures show Edinburgh among areas with highest number of sewage complaints | Supplied

SEPA was hit by a cyber attack in 2020, which means the body is unable to provide the same kind of data for the period between January 2020 and June 2022.

The regulator said it could not provide any data on the number of complaints it investigated but it decided whether to probe local issues on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of more than 3,600 sewage overflow sites across Scotland are actually monitored by Scottish Water, sparking frustration from environmental groups that the scale of the problem is not clear.

The SOS Leith group has funded independent water sampling, which confirmed faecal contamination in the Water of Leith.  

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Dr Jarvie added: "We need to see evidence of monitoring sewage discharges but they have refused to investigate. We were recently told by SEPA the cost of upgrading CSOs at the Water of Leith basins would be too high and it would cause an inconvenience to traffic on busy streets like Great Junction Street.

"SEPA says they are not mandated by law to investigate complaints. But we know the sewage spilling into silt is contaminated. It is a concern. We want to see the silt tested for sewage related bacteria so we can determine what the risks are to health. It has to be dealt with."

In a blog for the environmental rights centre for Scotland Dr Jarvie accused SEPA of evading responsibility.

He said: "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.  

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"Meanwhile, Scottish Water, which is responsible for the sewage pollution, has evaded responsibility."

The group wants to see a clear action plan to mitigate against spillage into the Water of Leith. 

Scottish Liberal Democrats have warned that the latest figures on complaints about sewage underestimate the total number of complaints over recent years.

Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to get to the bottom of Scotland’s sewage scandal.

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“Only a tiny fraction of the network is currently monitored but public complaints can give us a more complete picture of how widespread this problem is.

“While our rivers, lochs and coastlines are destroyed, customers are facing bumper price rises from the government-owned water giant.

“To turn the tide on this scandal, Scottish Liberal Democrats have published plans for a Clean Water Act that would see vital updates to our sewage network and a clamp down on discharges.”

Scottish Water said it plans to install 1,000 new CSO monitors by the end of 2024.

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Nathan Critchlow-Watton, head of water and planning at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) said: “As Scotland’s environment watchdog, SEPA are focused on protecting and improving Scotland’s water environment, with two decades of targeted regulation driving investment - meaning our water quality is at its highest level ever. More than 87 per cent of watercourses are rated as good or better and we have a record-breaking number of bathing waters rated as ‘excellent’.

“Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are an integral part of Scotland’s sewerage system, designed to discharge at times of high rainfall to prevent sewage backing-up and flooding houses. SEPA regulate discharges to the water environment, including discharges from CSOs, and assess Sewer Network Licenses on a rolling basis, with particular focus on those which have unsatisfactory compliance, as these can discharge sewage litter and impact on people’s enjoyment of the environment.

“We’re clear in our regulatory role in ensuring Scottish Water delivers against the Urban Waters Route Map, prioritising investment where it will have the most benefit for the environment and communities. Scottish Water have committed to installing monitors on every CSO discharging to an amenity Water by the end of 2024, with near real-time monitoring published for all these monitored CSOs by the end of 2024. SEPA will ensure this commitment is delivered.”

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