Wednesday 16 July 2014

Now wash your hands

Once a month the European Commission produces what is known as an infringements package. The subjects cover the environment, taxation, consumer rights, transport, energy, agriculture and other areas in which the member states have signed up to EU rules. As the title suggests, the infringements package deals with all the various ways in which member governments and institutions in member states have flouted or circumvented the rules.

The July package is of special interest to those of us who live in the south-west of Wales, dealing as it does with pollution from the gas-fired power station in Pembroke and sewage pollution in the Burry Inlet.

The text of the announcements can be found below, but in the case of the Burry Inlet, the Commission has given the UK Government two months to respond to its concerns. If the Commission is not satisfied that action will be taken, it may take the matter to the European Court of Justice.

This is by no means a new problem, but one which goes back to at least 2002. In July 2003 the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, then as now Mark James, was snapped by the BBC (report here) haranging local cockle pickers angry about the immense damage which was being done to their livelihoods.

Mark James
Setting the record straight

To be fair to Carmarthenshire County Council, it is only one of a number of bodies which bear responsibility, the others including Swansea City Council, Environment Agency Wales (now rebranded Natural Resources Wales) and Dŵr Cymru.

In 2006 representatives of the cockle pickers and local people submitted their case to the European Commission.

The crisis continued in the years that followed. "Mystery bug killing cockle beds" said the BBC in 2008. Soon afterwards the Environment Agency announced "urgent action" to save the cockle beds by thinning them.

In 2011 the courts fined Dŵr Cymru £20,000 for discharging sewage into the Inlet. The problem of cockle deaths was getting worse, but no compensation was paid to the cocklers because the agencies insisted that there was no proven link to pollution.

The problem refused to go away, and in 2012 the BBC reported that a study produced by Hull University had concluded that sewage pollution was not the problem. The Environment Agency announced that it would be drawing up yet another action plan, and the Environment Minister at the time, John Griffiths (Lab), said it was an emotive issue.

Understandably, the cocklers were sceptical.

In July 2012 the Petitions Committee of the Welsh Assembly produced its own findings. The Hull University report was inconclusive, it found. Despite all the promises and claims of major investment in infrastructure in preceding years, the Committee found that there was a need for short and long-term improvements to the sewage and drainage systems in the Llanelli and Burry Port areas.

The Committee noted that a formal complaint had been made to the European Commission.

Dŵr Cymru delivered a rather evasive response to the Committee. It knew what needed to be done, the company said, but the work might drive up customer bills considerably. The company also admitted that there had been problems with its network models, and that there had been more sewage spillages than expected.

Reading the Committee's report now shows how easily Assembly Members were fobbed off by the agencies. Dŵr Cymru said it was up the Welsh Government and the Environment Agency to determine the priorities, and the Environment Agency dismissed concerns about the impact of plans for 16,000 new homes in the area, saying that it had a memorandum of understanding which required developers to "provide betterment of the situation".

The problem with that is that a memorandum of understanding is not a legally binding document. Swansea City Council is understood to have withdrawn from the agreement, but has restrained development in the north Gower area. Carmarthenshire County Council, on the other hand, has been determined to push on with largescale housing developments on its side of the Loughor estuary.

At a recent meeting with Dŵr Cymru, members of the Llanelli Flood Forum were told that Dŵr Cymru had been allowed to discharge sewage into the estuary by the Environment Agency with the knowledge and approval of the Welsh Government. The Dŵr Cymru spokesman refused to acknowledge that there had been any infringements, and he indicated that the company would be seeking permission from the EU to vary the spillage of raw sewage by a hugely increased margin while it tackles drainage problems. It was also clear that the company will need to seek relaxations of the habitat regulations in order to do so.

Back in 2012 the Assembly Petitions Committee asked all of the agencies and bodies involved to work together and to continue their studies into the causes of cockle deaths. Carmarthenshire County Council was asked to publish the results of water quality tests.

It is by no means clear whether any of the bodies which went before the Committee have subsequently acted on any of the recommendations, with Carmarthenshire County Council putting up signs warning visitors to some of the beaches that "during and after periods of heavy rainfall the water quality at this beach may be reduced - it would be advisable to wash your hands after using the beach".

What is clear from the European Commission's latest news release is that excessive spills of waste water are occurring even during normal weather conditions.

If anyone who has watched broadcasts of Carmarthenshire County Council's monthly meetings has ever wondered why two councillors, Siân Caiach and Bill Thomas, regularly stand up to declare an interest on the grounds of their opposition to developments on the Carmarthenshire side of the estuary before the sewage problems are addressed, now you know..

You may now also understand why the council's top brass has been so determined not to allow either of them to speak on the subject. Indeed, at one meeting last year Cllr Thomas was visibly very angry and upset, alleging that the council had been carrying out surveillance on him.

As we know, the council was also caught red-handed monitoring Cllr Caiach's e-mails.

Text of EU Commission's announcements on Pembrokeshire and the Loughor Estuary.

Today the Commission sent the United Kingdom three reasoned opinions on environmental matters. The first concerns Pembroke Power station, the largest gas-fired power station in Europe, where the power plant's cooling system has a damaging impact on the surrounding ecosystem, which is a Marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC) protected under EU law. Under the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and the Habitats Directive, development consent should only be given after all the potential environmental impacts have been assessed. This does not appear to have been the case with the Pembrokeshire plant, where development and construction consents as well as a water abstraction licence and a permit for the dredging of the cooling system intake and outflow were granted before the full environmental assessments were completed. As a result, warm water with a heavy biocide load is currently being returned to the protected Milford Haven waterway. Many smaller fish, their eggs and other smaller organisms are affected by the cooling system, which passes large quantities of water from one end of the SAC through the plant and out the other side. The Commission letter also raises concerns about the application of the IPPC Directive on the final permits issued, in particular accepting this cooling system as Best Available Technology in this sensitive location and allowing an Environmental Quality Standard to be breached as a result.

The second letter concerns urban waste water treatment. Reports from the UK show a number of agglomerations still in breach of EU standards. Today's reasoned opinion, which follows letters of formal notice sent in June 2009 and June 2013, covers excessive spills of wastewater in Llanelli and Gowerton, Wales, into the sensitive waters of Burry Inlet, which are happening even during normal weather conditions (i.e. as opposed to during heavy rains); failures to provide secondary treatment for waste water in 9 agglomerations including Gibraltar; and failures to provide more stringent treatment for waste water in 24 agglomerations classified as sensitive areas. The UK has two months to respond.

1 comment:

Blodwen said...

Brilliant photo - says it all really, doesn't it!