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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 3 November 2012

Welcome to another exciting episode of The Poo Show! Last week, regular readers may recall, Four Seasons spent some quality time at Scottish Water’s sewage treatment plant at Cove in the Scottish Borders, just around the corner from the popular surfing beach at Pease Bay. The plant has been the source of much controversy in recent years – to get the full backstory check out last week’s column at – but the crux of the matter is as follows. During the so-called “bathing season” which runs from 1 June until 15 September, the effluent leaving the plant at Cove is blasted with UV rays, reducing the number of pathogens (germs) it contains. For the rest of the year, it receives only “secondary treatment”, which is less costly but also less effective.

According to the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage, the UV blasting should continue all year round to protect the several hundred surfers who use Pease throughout the winter; according to Scottish Water and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), however, the effluent leaving the plant outwith the bathing season poses no threat to public health.

So far, so straightforward, but the thing Four Seasons was struggling to make sense of by the end of last week’s column was the rather glaring lack of logic inherent in the status quo – ie if the water at Pease is safe to swim in when the UV treatment is turned off in the winter, why bother spending money to have it turned on in the summer?

I said I’d do my best to get an answer to that question this week and, in the end, I think I have done.

I began by calling Chris Hodge, Senior Press Officer at Scottish Water.

“Right now this minute,” I said, “is the water at Pease Bay safe to swim in? Would you come down there with me now and go splash about in the shorebreak?”

“It’s freezing!” he replied.

“Yeah, but with a wetsuit you can go in all year round now, so that’s really academic. Would you go into the water at Pease now?”

“Yes, definitely. I’d have no qualms about it.”

“So why do Scottish Water switch the UV treatment on in the bathing season? If it’s safe now, what’s the point of having UV treatment for the bathing season?”

“So that you know, it ensures that, erm… see, you… you’re coming from a position where you’re saying… well, you’re not saying it but you’re assuming…”

I was subsequently instructed to put any further questions I might have in an email, so I turned to Calum McPhail, Environment Quality Unit Manager at Sepa. I asked him if he thought the water at Pease was safe outside the bathing season.

“It’s as safe as anybody can say,” he replied. “Never say never, of course, but in the general sense of normal environmental quality the bathing water is as safe as it could be. The sewage [at Cove] is treated all year round by normal technology, but it gets this additional sort of polishing just for the bathing season – which it actually doesn’t need, but it gets it as part of a belt-and-braces approach.”

So if the water at Pease is safe without the UV, by using UV in the summer are we just blowing a load of tax bucks on something we don’t actually need?”

“Possibly, yeah. I think all the evidence we’ve had so far is that there isn’t any obvious benefit [to UV treatment]. But that’s just my personal opinion based on an understanding of all the inputs.”

So there you have it. According to Sepa’s head of Environment Quality, UV screening at Cove during the summer isn’t strictly necessary. The only reason it happens at all is because an EU Directive demands it: “The European Bathing Directive is specifically targeted at bathing, and as such that’s really where our focus is,” McPhail told me.

He also pointed to three winter water quality tests carried out by Sepa in 2011 (one in February, one in March and one in April) that show water quality at Pease to be within the recommended limits, and he suggested that surfers are more likely to be made sick by contaminated runoff from the land around Pease ending up in the two burns that flow into the bay than by effluent from the sewage treatment plant at Cove.

Next week, in the third and final instalment in this extravaganza of excrement, Surfers Against Sewage respond to Sepa’s stats.

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