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More than 400 industrial sites across Scotland have been officially damned as “unsatisfactory” on pollution, according to data from Scotland’s environmental watchdog.
The shocking figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and seen by the journalism co-operative The Ferret, are revealed as part of a joint week-long special investigation series launched today by The Herald, which asks the question: ‘How Green is Scotland?’
Sepa assessed the environmental performance of two big oil companies, ExxonMobil and Ineos, as “very poor” in 2019. A Grangemouth chemical plant and a Coupar Angus chicken processor were rated as “poor”.
Four of Scotland’s airports were similarly condemned, along with a Glasgow crematorium and sewage sludge plant, a Dunbar cement works, the Faslane nuclear base on the Clyde and the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire.
A poor rating means that rules designed to protect the environment have been broken. The breaches include noisy and polluting gas flares, bad smells, hazardous chemical discharges, spreading clouds of dust, contaminating or overusing water and inadequate record-keeping.
Also branded as unsatisfactory by Sepa for 2019 were seven whisky distilleries, some 30 land farms, 40 fish farms and 60 waste sites. Numerous other sites were criticised, including paper mills, hotels, golf courses, caravan parks, hydro schemes, care homes and breweries.
Overall more than 30 sites were rated as “very poor”, around 240 as “poor” and 150 as “at risk” of breaching environmental rules in 2019. Over 40 sites have been assessed as unsatisfactory – either very poor, poor or at risk – for the last four years running.
Campaigners have described the revelations as “shocking and damning” and called for a “major crackdown” by Sepa. Some companies said they have invested to cut pollution, while others declined to comment.
Sepa usually conducts environmental compliance assessments of around 5,000 sites across Scotland every year. Publication of the results for 2019, however, has been repeatedly delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and a Christmas 2020 cyber attack on the environmental agency.
After the cyber attack — said to have been launched by an international criminal gang — a detailed spreadsheet showing draft results for 2019 was posted online. This information has been analysed, checked and independently verified by The Ferret.
Sepa abandoned full site assessments in 2020 because of the restrictions resulting from Covid-19 lockdowns. But it is planning to publish a report on compliance in 2020, along with its delayed 2019 assessments, before Christmas.
Oil and chemical plants ‘poor’
The ethylene plant run by US oil giant ExxonMobil at Mossmorran in Fife was assessed as very poor by Sepa because of a series of gas flaring incidents in April 2019. The plant was previously rated as poor in 2018 and 2017.
ExxonMobil said it was “disappointed” with the 2019 assessment, but pointed out it had done much since to reduce flaring, including a “£140m plant upgrade, a 14-step flaring reduction plan and an investment in an enclosed ground flare, which alone will reduce elevated flaring by at least 98 per cent when it becomes operational next year.”
The North Sea oil and gas terminal at Kinneil, near Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth, run by the petrochemical company, Ineos, was also rated very poor for 2019 because of flaring. The plant has been assessed as either poor or very poor for six years, with Sepa saying in 2018 that it had been “consistently non-compliant since 2014”.
Ineos said it would “await formal confirmation” from Sepa before making any comment.
A chemical plant run by CalaChem at Grangemouth was rated as poor by Sepa for 2019 because of smells from an effluent treatment plant. The plant was given the same assessment for the same reason in 2018.
The company’s managing director, Colin Loudon, accepted that there had been “periods of off-sites odours”, but insisted there had been a “dramatic improvement” in 2021. CalaChem was also investing £1.1m in a new odour abatement unit to be commissioned in 2022, he said.
The 2 Sisters chicken processing plant at Coupar Angus, in Perth and Kinross, was assessed as poor because of bad smells around the site. But the company said there had been a “large reduction in odour issues raised by our neighbours” in the last two years after it engaged with environmental consultants and invested in “infrastructure to prevent odour release”.
READ MORE FROM THE ‘HOW GREEN IS SCOTLAND?’ INVESTIGATION?
De-icing chemicals at airports
Inverness airport was rated as very poor for 2019, while Wick, Aberdeen and Edinburgh airports were assessed as poor. Pollution has been caused by discharges of chemicals used to de-ice aircraft in the winter.
Sepa previously highlighted problems at all four airports, with Inverness rated as very poor every year since 2014. Wick had poor ratings for three previous years, while Aberdeen and Edinburgh were both poor in 2018.
HIAL, which runs Inverness and Wick airports, stressed that over 90 per cent of undertakings it made to tackle the problems were “completed or nearing completion” by the deadline of October 2020.
These included a “new de-icing solution” which will be rolled out across the company by 2022. Chief operating officer, Gary Cobb, also revealed £14.5m had been committed at Inverness to limit overflows and prevent leaks, and “extensive remedial works” had been carried out at Wick.
Aberdeen airport said it had immediately put measures in place to resolve the issues. “This included the installation of new equipment within the lagoon, closing water outlets so as all water is diverted to the lagoon where it is treated,” added a spokesperson.
Edinburgh airport refused to comment on our revelations. “It is concerning we are being asked to comment on something we understand to be obtained in an illegal data hack,” said a spokesperson.
“We don’t condone any form of criminality or any moves to justify it.”
A crematorium, a sewage sludge plant and a cement works
The Linn Crematorium run by Glasgow City Council, near Netherlee, was rated as poor in 2019 because of air pollution. It has been assessed as either very poor or poor every year since 2014 because of emissions of particles and gases.
“We accept there were previously minor incidents at Linn Crematorium that related to temperature control,” a council spokesperson told The Ferret.
“We have now undertaken the necessary repairs to the equipment and the crematorium is now operating fully in accordance with environmental standards.”
Sepa rated the Drax sewage sludge plant at Daldowie in Glasgow as poor for 2019 because of problems with smells. It was also poor in 2018 due to “repeated breaches” of limits following “public complaints of offensive odour”.
According to Drax, which bought the plant at the end of 2018, “industry leading” technology to reduce smells was installed in 2020. “The plant plays an important role in converting sludge into sustainable fuel pellets which have replaced coal in manufacturing cement, helping the sector decarbonise and reduce emissions,” said a company spokesperson.
A cement works at Dunbar in East Lothian operated by Tarmac was poor in 2019 because of “dust emissions” covering local communities and provoking complaints. The plant was also rated as poor by Sepa in 2018, 2017 and 2014.
Tarmac said it was working on cutting the emissions, which were “significantly lower” in 2020. “There was no health risk to the public,” said the plant’s manager, Chris Bradbury.
“We take our environmental performance and relationship with the local community very seriously and are committed to minimising the risks associated with our operations.”
The Ferret reported in April that Sepa had assessed the Trident nuclear base at Faslane near Helensburgh as poor for 2019 after it polluted the Clyde with toxic chemicals. The Royal Navy insisted that this was an “isolated event” and that pollution had been low in 2020.
We also revealed in May that Donald Trump’s golf resort at Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast was given a 2019 rating of very poor because limits on using water were breached. The resort did not respond to requests to comment, though Sepa has previously said steps were being taken to combat the problem, including storage tanks.
The draft assessments for 2019 show three whisky distilleries classed as poor and four as at risk. According to Sepa, poor means “non-compliant or responsible for at least one significant breach”, and at risk means “low management performance indicates a risk of future breaches”.
The Scotch Whisky Association, which represents the industry, stressed that it took its responsibility to protect the natural environment very seriously. “Whilst there is always more to do, the vast majority of Scotland’s distilleries are consistently compliant with Sepa regulations,” said the association’s acting director, Peter Clark.
Farms and waste sites had some of the highest rates of non-compliance in 2019, according to Sepa’s data. These cover various breaches of environmental rules, pollution incidents and reporting failures.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland said that overall compliance was high, and farmers had a “strong commitment” to rectify breaches when they occurred. The waste industry’s Environmental Services Association said it wasn’t appropriate to comment until they’d seen the final assessments.
Action needed on ‘serial offenders’
Friends of the Earth Scotland pointed out there were environmental offenders in almost every sector. “From the MoD to oil firms and from waste sites to airports, there are firms creating environmental problems the length and breadth of Scotland,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Top offenders are the oil industry in the form of ExxonMobil and Ineos, doubly embarrassing as they try to pretend they can be part of the solution to climate change as we approach the COP26 climate summit.”
Dixon warned that the pandemic could have prevented the public from knowing what firms got away with in 2020. “Any repeat offenders from 2019 who appear in the 2021 report need a major crackdown from Sepa,” he urged.
The multiple breaches were “shocking and damning”, according to the Scottish Greens. “Compliance at Mossmorran and Grangemouth has been poor for years,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“These sites are industrial relics that are making a major contribution to the climate emergency. Only meaningful regulatory reform can tackle entrenched compliance problems, alongside sanctions and fines that actually hurt companies that damage the planet.”
Professor Andrew Watterson, an environmental expert from the University of Stirling, thought the data showed little if any improvement. Sepa rated 489 sites as unsatisfactory in 2018, 453 in 2017 and 440 in 2016.
“In the circumstances, the soft ‘better regulation’ agenda that has operated in Scotland for years should be ditched. Agencies such as Sepa should be strengthened to take greater action to stop repeated unsatisfactory performances by serial offenders.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency stressed that environmental compliance was “non-negotiable”. It pointed out that overall compliance had been over 90 per cent for four years to 2018.
“Sepa is firmly focussed on getting all remaining businesses to compliance, whilst supporting as many as possible to innovate and go even further,” said a spokesperson for the agency.
“We do not comment on stolen information, illegally published by likely international serious and organised criminals, and we are unable to confirm data until published.”