Fifers are set to find out more about how exactly a toxic spill occurred on the River Eden following action from a Cupar councillor in the wake of another chemical incident on a linked waterway.
Lib Dem Margaret Kennedy has requested that Fife Council environmental health officers and national body Sepa work together to produce a report on Scottish Water’s accidental release of 400 litres of Zetag into the Eden in October 2018, at the peak of the salmon spawning season.
At least 500 trout and salmon died as a result of the spill stemming from the Scottish Water-run Cupar Waste Water Treatment Works, harming fish stocks for years to come.
Sepa investigated the spill after it was reported, and ultimately secured a conviction for pollution against Scottish Water in May this year.
The government-run utilities body was fined £6700.
While some details of the spill were read out in court, Sepa’s conclusions have not been made available to the wider public.
It does not routinely publish details of its investigations, but councillor Kennedy believes that Fifers are entitled to know how the failure in chemical control came about and what is being done to prevent it from happening again.
“All I have seen [on the Eden spill] is what was printed in the press,” cllr Kennedy said.
“I’m concerned about the wider impact on the environment that it has, and I have concerns about how regulatory bodies can proactively manage our ecosystems and waterways.
“We need to know more about how, when something goes wrong, it’s managed locally.”
Her motion, tabled on her behalf at the North East Fife area committee by Tim Brett, was accepted unanimously.
Cllr Kennedy added: “By getting this report we can come through with other questions about the investigation process as it simply hasn’t gone the way the public would hope.
“What’s not right is that people don’t understand what happens in these circumstances and they don’t feel as if they’re being listened to.”
The Eden spill occurred when a forklift driver at the Cupar treatment works accidentally punctured a 1000 litre container of the chemical Zetag.
Zetag is a flocculant – a type of cleaning substance used to gather up solid particles in water. Upon contact with liquid it takes on a jelly-like quality that attracts foreign bodies, making them easy to remove from water sources.
Warnings produced by manufacturer Solenis note: “As with all cationic polyelectrolytes the product exhibits toxicity towards fish. It is important that precautions are taken where the product may come into direct contact with fresh-water courses, streams and rivers.”
Scottish Water plant workers, unaware of the catastrophic effect the material has on aquatic life, hosed the spilled chemicals into nearby surface drains that led directly to the Eden. The alarm was only raised when members of the public spotted fish floating down the river.
The Eden Angling Association (EAA), a non-profit body that maintains and controls fishing and restocking along the River Eden, is counting the costs of the spill more than most.
With few fish to catch and no restocking order served on Scottish Water to replenish the hundreds of fish and thousands of fry killed, its membership numbers dwindled immediately after the leak, forcing it to delve into cash reserves to stay afloat.
Almost three years on, salmon numbers are rising again on the Eden – but David Farmer, secretary and treasurer of the EAA, wants to know why Sepa wasn’t providing any insight into the investigation as it progressed.
His anxieties over water quality have recently been exacerbated by a fresh chemical spill that occurred last month on the Ceres Burn, which feeds into the Eden.
A Sepa investigation into that incident is ongoing, but it is understood that it is not in any way connected to the Eden accident.
“I provided a witness statement to Sepa at the time,” Mr Farmer said of the 2018 affair.
“To their credit, they have prosecuted that particular incident – but we weren’t called to the court case.
“The sheriff produced some miniscule fine which is not the right kind of message to send, particularly to someone who has caused so much damage.
“It’s only a small number of salmon that come up the river – and losing them has a long-term effect.”
Club records show that 32 salmon were caught in 2017. In 2018, this dropped to just nine, but recovered last year to 24.
It has worked to restock and protect the river on its own, without assistance or insight from Sepa or Scottish Water – but this situation, Mr Farmer says, is unsustainable and sows doubt in Sepa’s ability to protect Scotland’s waterways.
He hopes to set up a steering group in the near future made up of members of the EAA, Sepa, Scottish Water and other local figures to act in the Eden’s best interests.
“We’re not getting support from Sepa – the whole system for looking after the environment is broken,” Mr Farmer added.
“A £6700 fine is a joke – particularly because it goes right back to the Scottish Government and we see none of it despite the fact it would help us restock the river.
“We need more transparency on what’s being done to protect the rivers. People might understand [the action taken] if Sepa was more transparent but it’s not.
“Their reliance on the community for reporting is all reactive. There’s no effort to be proactive with the community at all.
“We don’t know if they’re doing anything like that at all. The experience to date is not good.”
A Sepa spokesperson said: “Following reports from members of the public in October 2018, Sepa discovered a chemical leak from the Cupar Waste Water Treatment Works had caused localised pollution and the death of hundreds of fish in the River Eden.
“Following the discharge, a clean-up of the river was completed, and remedial actions were taken.
“Sepa submitted a report to the Procurator Fiscal and Scottish Water was fined £6700 on Monday, May 10, 2021.
“While Sepa has not received a request for further information from councillor Kennedy, we would be happy to provide more information on the event.”
By local democracy reporter Jon Brady