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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 27 October 2012

FINISHED your breakfast? Good, because this week we’re talking poo. Still eating? You may want to turn the page and come back later. Back in 2009, The Scotsman reported that, at various sites around Scotland’s coastline, sewage released into the sea was being treated to a lower standard in winter than in summer. During the so-called “bathing season”, from the start of June to the middle of September, the sewage at these sites is bombarded with UV rays before being released – a procedure that reduces pathogen levels to around 35 particles per 100ml (a pathogen being any microorganism capable of causing disease in a host, for example, a human). For the rest of the year, however, the sewage receives what’s known as secondary treatment, which only reduces pathogen levels to between 100,000 and 300,000 particles per 100ml. If you were going to drink a cupful of seawater from one of these locations for a dare, in other words, you’d be a whole lot better off doing it in July than in January. (Common pathogens in human sewage, by the by, include E coli, cryptosporidium, salmonella and campylobacter, all of which have the power to thoroughly mess up your weekend.)

Of course, if there’s nobody in the water at these locations when the UV treatment has been switched off, there’s nobody around to get ill, so none of this really matters. But what happens when you have a sewage outflow pipe located approximately 1,500m from a popular surfing beach – a beach that’s used by several hundred surfers all year round?

Well, in the case of Pease Bay in the Borders, you get a lot of upset surfers who claim the water is making them ill.

Alasdair Steele is the Edinburgh and South East Scotland Rep for environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage, and, like many people, he surfs right through the winter at Pease.

“The really difficult thing for us is that it’s so hard to pin down how you’ve got ill,” he says. “For example, I know somebody who got E coli – she spent a week in hospital and she’s pretty sure she got it at Pease Bay. The doctor’s view was, ‘you probably got this from surfing at Pease Bay, but I can’t prove it’.

“We don’t have any definite statistics, but you won’t meet any surfers who surf here regularly who haven’t had some sort of bug. I’ve had sickness, diarrhoea, ear infections, eye infections… and I’m one of the 
lucky ones.”

Steele takes me out to the treatment plant at Cove. The plant itself is situated on a narrow headland, and the pipe issuing out of it enters the water at the foot of the steep, crumbling cliffs beneath before heading out to sea.

“At places like this in England, the UV is left on year-round,” says Steele. “The Environment Agency have said to English water companies, ‘you need to leave it on all year unless you can prove there are no recreational water users’. But then you come north of the Border and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency [SEPA] don’t make the 
same demands.”

When I contacted Scottish Water, a spokesman said: “Cove waste water treatment works is fully compliant with all necessary legislation.”

So I got on to SEPA and asked if there was any chance they might follow the Environment Agency’s lead in future, making year-round UV treatment mandatory at sewage treatment plants close to year-round recreational bathing areas.

Calum McPhail, SEPA’s Environmental Quality Manager, replied: “As there isn’t a statutory driver, mandatory year-round UV treatment at sewage treatment plants close to year-round recreational bathing areas is unlikely.” Which sounds a lot like: “There’s no law that says we have to make them do it.”

McPhail added that he didn’t believe Cove sewage treatment works pose “a significant risk” to water users as they are located “at a distance from the Pease Bay area”. SEPA also provided evidence of three water quality tests carried out in the winter of 2011, one in February, one in March and one in April, that seem to bear this out.

So what’s going on? Either a) surfers at Pease are getting ill because they’re ingesting pathogens coming from the sewage treatment plant at Cove, in which case the Scottish Government should perhaps take a careful look at its “statutory drivers”. Or b) SEPA is right, and sewage that has only received secondary treatment doesn’t “pose a significant risk” to health, in which case, surely, using UV treatment at Cove during the summer months represents a monumental logic fail – not to mention a huge waste of taxpayers’ money – and should be stopped right away.

After several days of phone calls and emails, I get the feeling that I’ve only just scratched the surface of all this, so I’m going to keep plugging away until I get some clarity. As soon as somebody manages to explain to me why UV treatment is necessary to protect public health in the summer but not in the winter, I’ll let you all know.

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