Scottish Water fined for 'avoidable' acid spill

24th January 2014

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Rebecca Hart

Poor maintenance and monitoring procedures were to blame for thousands of litres of sulphuric acid escaping and polluting the River Devon, said prosecutor

Scottish Water has been fined by Alloa Sheriff Court for two water pollution offences, one resulting from a leak of sulphuric acid from its Glendevon water treatment plant in Clackmannanshire.

On 4 July 2011, following complaints from the public of pollution in the River Devon, an officer from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) visited the plant and found that a major pollution incident was in progress.

It was later established that between 10,000 and 12,000 litres of 96% concentrated sulphuric acid had escaped from a tank via secondary pipework. Some of the acid entered the nearby River Devon, killing fish, molluscs and shrimp, and polluting the waterway for 6km. The incident was classified as a Category 1 major pollution incident by Sepa and local councils issued warnings against swimming or fishing in the river, which were not lifted until 19 August.

A Sepa investigation revealed that Scottish Water had failed to properly maintain the tank containing the acid and that no chemical spill kits were available onsite.

“Had the tank been maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations, and appropriate materials used, it is likely that the incident would not have occurred,” confirmed Calum Waddell, Sepa’s reporting officer.

“Had chemical spill kits been available the impact would have been minimised by blocking off the outlets leading to the drains and burns.”

In a separate incident on 1 August 2011, a poorly maintained alarm system at the nearby St Serfs sewage pumping station, failed to alert Scottish Water staff that sewage levels were too high. As a result, sewage backed up and escaped into the Goudnie Burn, polluting a 750m stretch of the waterway and damaging the environment.

Alloa Sheriff Court heard that a vital cable in the alarm had broken in March 2011 and had not been replaced. “Had the alarm system been maintained and functioned as it should have done, Scottish Water would have been alerted to the fact the pumps were not pumping sewage forward for treatment,” said Liam Macrae, Sepa’s investigating officer. “This would have meant that staff could have carried out essential maintenance to restart the pumps sooner.”

Prosecuting the case Sara Shaw, said: “These incidents were, sadly, entirely avoidable. If proper safeguards, and an effective system for checking and maintaining Scottish Water plant, had been in place, both of these incidents could have been prevented. At the very least, earlier intervention by the company could have lessened their environmental impact.

“Scottish Water failed to implement appropriate inspection, maintenance and notification systems. That failure, the resultant damage to the environment and the impact on the local communities, is unacceptable.”

Scottish Water, which generated £1 billion of revenue in 2012/13, was fined a total of £10,000 after pleading guilty to both offences.

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