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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 10 November 2012

THIS is it folks: the third and final week in which Four Seasons discusses the issue of sewage treatment at Pease Bay in the Borders. If you somehow missed out on Parts One and Two of this carnival of copraphilia, catch up online at Here’s a quick recap anyway – as much for my benefit as for yours.

In Week One, Four Seasons spoke to Alasdair Steele of environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). He’s concerned that while effluent released into the sea from Scottish Water’s sewage treatment plant at Cove, just round the corner from Pease, is blasted with UV rays during the bathing season (June to September), it isn’t treated to the same high standard for the rest of the year. As a result, he fears surfers who use Pease right through the winter are getting ill.

In Part Two, Four Seasons tried to get to the bottom of why effluent was treated to the highest possible standards for only part of the year, when there are people in the water at Pease all year round. Calum McPhail, Environment Quality Unit Manager at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), explained that the UV treatment had to be switched on for the bathing season to comply with EU law. He said that, in his opinion, the effluent released from Cove didn’t present a risk to public health – even when the UV was turned off – and when asked if he thought running UV treatment in the summer months was a waste of public money replied: “Possibly, yeah”.

McPhail’s position is based, in part, on water quality tests carried out in the winter and spring of 2011. On 15 February a water sample was taken from the bay at Pease and tested for pathogens (germs). The test was repeated on 16 March and 13 April. On each occasion, pathogen levels recorded were well within the guideline (excellent) standard as set out in the EU’s Bathing Water Directive.

But according to Andy Cummins, Campaigns Director at SAS, these findings are of questionable value. “SEPA is oversimplifying a complex system,” he says. “I’m concerned that by jumping to these conclusions, they are either misleading the public or showing a lack of understanding of the environment. What SEPA do is pick the spot which they feel is the most heavily-used spot along a given beach, and they’ll use that one spot as their sampling point. They’ll go out to a metre depth and they’ll submerge a 100ml bottle 30cms below the water. All you’ll be able to tell from that sample is what the water was like at that one spot along the beach at that one point in time.”

Cummins sent me a hugely detailed study carried out in 2010 at Godrevy Beach in Cornwall by the Environment Agency (the English equivalent of SEPA), Cornwall Council and Southwest Water, with SAS as a partner organisation. Samples were taken at 20 different spots on 23 different days between July and October.

“We saw samples taken on the same day at the same time across 20 different points giving dramatically different results,” he says. “We saw failures of the EU directive and passes and guideline [excellent] passes – all along the same stretch of beach.”

The sheer volume of data gathered at Godrevy – four different spreadsheets, each containing over 500 units of data – does make the total of six units of data gathered by SEPA appear somewhat insubstantial by comparison. “The burden of proof needs to be in the favour of water users,” says Cummins. “Let’s have UV treatment turned on year round, and then if Scottish Water want to reduce the level of treatment, let’s make sure there’s a detailed analysis of Pease Bay first. When we’ve got that information, we can all sit around a table and say ‘let’s have a common sense approach here – these are the true impacts’. But we simply can’t do that with the information we’ve got so far.”

Given the potential risks to public health, a detailed study of the winter water quality at Pease doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request. In fact, it’s hard to see any other way of settling this issue once and for all.

Colin Boswell, who runs the caravan park at Pease, has expressed understandable concerns that this series of articles could adversely affect his business. It seems only fair to point out that, unlike Scottish Water, Boswell uses UV treatment on the effluent leaving the park all year round. If there is a sewage-related problem, in other words, he is emphatically not part of it.

With luck, the question of water quality will be put beyond doubt soon, and business owners will be able to boast of safe bathing waters with confidence.

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