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Sewage Sea Shore

Sewage Sea ShoreThere was a report in the LSA Express (and elsewhere) recently saying that the "defiant message" from Fylde Council was "Keep on bathing" as the Council's beaches were shown to be at risk of being blacklisted after they were slammed by the 'Good Beach Guide'.

The report also said if they don't clean up their act, the bathing waters would face being closed to visitors.

The Express report continued to say that there were two beaches, 'St Annes' and 'St Annes North' which had each been the subject of 20 water tests last year between May and September, and each beach had failed three times.

Two of the fails were in September - which was a period of especially heavy rain.

The cause was said to be that the heavy rain had washed surface water from roads property and fields further up the estuary, and if it hadn't been for the heavy rain, they wouldn't have failed.

We think that statement is half true, and half an attempt to mislead (not by the Express - who were only reporting it!)

The Marine Conservation Society (who publish the interactive Good Beach Guide which has publicised the failure of Fylde's beaches) warned that there was plenty of work to be done.

The Express report said that from Summer 2012 the beaches will be ranked under new European standards (which will make passing the water quality tests twice as hard as they have been up to now) , and any failing to make the grade over four years of testing will be declared a health hazard in 2015, and will have to have signs put up advising against swimming. If the beaches continue to fail, that advice will become permanent and they will be closed to visitors.

Clearly, that would be a body-blow for the tourism industry here, so this is a key issue, and you'd think it would be high on Members priority lists.

A spokesman for Fylde Council apparently told the Express "Keep on bathing. We want visitors to keep coming. They are perfectly safe, but we are aware of the tougher standards. We want to protect the tourism industry. We don't want to see any more failures in the future"

Who gave that sort of an answer is that for heavens sake?

We see a few points that are of considerable interest in this Express report, but they're deeper in than you can address in a short newspaper article.

First - and intriguingly - but probably least importantly, have you noticed that whenever Fylde has some good news to report it is always attributed to a named Cabinet Member, but when there is bad news it nearly always comes from "A Council spokesman" ?

Such is the cost of spin.

We firmly believe that all statements by or on behalf of the Council should come from a named member or a chief officer, thus rendering the spokesman accountable for the responsibility they properly carry, instead of hiding behind the anonymity of "a spokesman"

You'd also think something as important as this would have been the subject of a news release by FBC, but there's nothing with the other news statements on the Council's website.

And you'd be forgiven for thinking that something as important as this would already have been reported to the Council or the Cabinet, or at least a Scrutiny Committee and that urgent plans were being developed to combat the risk that is posed by failing beaches.

But we haven't seen such a report and we suspect Members are not that clued up about it.

What we do seem to have here, is a topic that's not being given the political impetus that it should be given by Fylde.

So what's going on?

Well, the story looks to have been prompted by the Marine Conservation Society. In the past, we've found them to be quite a mischievous organisation. Their aims might be well intentioned, but we have seen them create the impression that things are terrible when they're only bad. As such, we have tended to take whatever they say with a pinch of salt.

Typically they will mix up things like rubbish in the tide line with beaches failing water tests. The first is a nuisance, the second a fundamentally important health matter.

But this time we think there is a problem. And it's a big one.

Although MCS appear as their usual harbingers of doom, this time the underlying issue has substance and is important. It isn't just their usual cry of 'Wolf !'

An illustration of the importance of this matter is the establishment of 'The Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group' which, according to its blurb (more later) includes Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool councils, together with Lancashire County Council, the Environment Agency, United Utilities plc and Keep Britain Tidy. (No less!) It claims to have been 'set up' April 2011.

Whilst historically, the MCS might have banged on about inadequate beach facilities and poor cleaning, that's child's play compared to the potentially serious problem of coliform bacteria being found in the bathing water.

Coliform bacteria come from colons, the endgame of food digestion. They are universally present in large numbers in the faeces of warm-blooded animals.

While coliforms are themselves not normally causes of serious illness, their presence is used to indicate that other pathogenic organisms of faecal origin may be present. Faecal pathogens include bacteria, viruses, or protozoa and  parasites.

In seawater, coliform bacteria are a signal that excrement is, or has recently been, present in the water in significant quantities, and coliform bacteria counts were the reason that beaches up and down the country failed wholesale tests in the 1980s.

According to the Environment Agency, coliforms, faecal coliforms and faecal streptococci (the main bacteria involved) are not directly harmful but they "indicate the presence of pollution". However, we doubt that sort of advice would go down well on a novovirus-ridden cruise ship, or even a hospital ward for that matter.

To borrow (and mangle) a metaphor in order to simplify this, where there's muck there's potential for sickness. And the bacteria are the markers for muck.

This problem in Fylde has significantly improved since around 1994 when 'Sea Change', a 500 million coastal clean-up, was launched by the Environment Agency in conjunction with United Utilities. These works included major sewage treatment changes. Fairhaven Pumping Station was expanded to reduce storm overflows to the sea. Preston Sewage Treatment Works was upgraded and a new sewage treatment works built at Southport.

In Blackpool, United Utilities constructed a tunnel to provide storage for storm discharges and the transfer of flows from four coastal pumping stations serving the Blackpool area to a huge new sewage treatment works at Fleetwood.

Sandgate pumping station was built in St Annes, and massive underground storage tanks were constructed in several locations to cope as far as was deemed reasonable at the time with storm conditions that cause particular problems (more later)

One such store sits below Park View Playing Fields in Lytham. It is a tank shaped like a vertical Polo mint tube, with a small six feet or so wide hole or shaft down the centre. It's as wide across as a house, and more than 100 feet deep into the ground. It holds a lot of, well, excrement. You wouldn't notice it above ground, there's only a small manhole covering the access shaft on the surface, but it can contain very large volumes of water and sewage when there is heavy rainfall.

But today, the problem we have arises chiefly because of changing standards. The adequacy of plans laid in 1994 is no longer adequate.

To understand how we got here, we need to look back at history.

In Victorian times, the sewage system saw no need to keep what today we call 'surface water' and 'sewage' separate. There was just one 'wastewater' drain connection for each house, into which went the water from roofs and paths, AND water and waste from baths and loos and kitchen sinks.

As more and more houses were built through the post war housing boom to the 60s, few additional sewers were provided, and the existing ones reached capacity.

Furthermore, as more and more houses were added, the cost of cleaning up the much greater volumes of wastewater increased.

Then, environmental and drainage officers realised that capacity could be improved and treatment costs reduced, if the relatively clean water from roofs and paths and so on was separated out from the sewage and sinks.

And so it came to be.

Today, (and since the late 1950 early 60s) new houses have separate sewage and surface water drainage as standard and, as time progresses, that allows both differential treatment, and storm surges, to be coped with better.

But we still have a legacy of Victorian property on mixed of combined sewers, and when there is a storm and heavy rain, a flash concentration of rainwater from such property hits these sewers, as roof and path and road water flushes into them from older property. And it vastly increases the flow volume.

That's why we needed those sewage storage tanks and pumping stations in 'Sea Change'.

But - as ever - the solutions of the 1990s were only enough to cope with capacity at that time. And even then, it wouldn't have been financially practical to deal with EVERY storm eventuality. (Although with today's costs, it might now seem as though it would have been a very good idea).

So the sewage design was set at or around the standards applying at the time. And to be fair, big sewage improvements *were* made.

But over time, the quality standards keep being set higher - which means that the existing system (that was previously held to be adequate) begins to fall below what is now expected as the norm

That's not to say it coped with everything even when it was new.

It didn't.

For example, there is a sewer in Anchorsholme/Cleveleys which remained below the capacity needed in storm conditions because the cost of fixing it was considered astronomic and so disruptive (It might have involved demolishing homes to fix it) that it was not changed. So those in charge of managing the waste water in that part of the Fylde were faced with one of two choices in a storm of sufficient severity. They either allow people's homes to flood, or they open the valve and discharge raw sewage onto the beach. (Both of which, sadly, happen from time to time). There is, or at least was, (our information is now a bit behind the times) simply not the capacity in that sewer run to cope with a major storm.

We think it's still probably the case, because a report to Wyre BC only last year said that whilst significant work had been undertaken at Fleetwood Wastewater Treatment Works to provide for additional capacity to treat a greater load from the Blackpool and Fleetwood areas, United Utilities had expressed concern about 'network hydraulic capacity'. This particularly related to the main Fylde/Blackpool Interceptor tunnel, which runs the length of the sea front from the Manchester Square area of Blackpool to the Golden Mile. Their concern arises because of the "frequency of storm spills at Manchester Square, Anchorsholme and Chatsworth Avenue pumping stations". They were also concerned to reduce the number of spills in the River Wyre at Poulton.

To rectify the situation the plans included the construction of a new treatment works the size of five football pitches off Shard Lane (but just within Fylde Borough). The plan is to disconnect a substantial amount of flow volume from the Wyre area (especially Poulton, Singleton, Hambleton, Stalmine and the properties on Mains Lane not currently connected to the main system) and thus stop it from entering the Fylde tunnel. This will reduce the how often the tunnel is full and then overflows raw sewage into the Irish Sea. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear to us, that doesn't seem to be going ahead, and it seems two large capacity storage tanks are going to be installed instead.

(We suspect they're waiting for all the new Local Plans to be produced - and even the outcome of the Queensway appeal - because those will determine where the large numbers of houses will go, (Queensway? Whyndyke Farm? Thornton?) and thus where new treatment works might be needed)

As we'll see later, little information is publicly available on what is actually happening. However, from what we can see at present, the additional treatment works / storage capacity project is the main hope to improve St Annes beaches.

But we're less sure.

When the new pumping station was built at Fairhaven (next to Fairhaven lake) it produced a vast improvement, but it did not cater for absolutely every eventuality, and a sort of mushroom looking structure near the lake would open under specific storm conditions - typically three or four times a year - and discharge untreated sewage into the sea.

The Environment Agency now say "The Fairhaven Car Park storm overflow and Sandgate Pumping Station overflow are no longer in use. The flow has been diverted away from the bathing water by United Utilities. Fairhaven Pumping Station which discharges to the south of St Annes bathing water has undergone significant investment to protect bathing water quality."

Well, maybe.... But they also have a 'Get out of Jail Free' quote on their website where they add... "There are numerous storm, emergency and surface water outfalls that discharge to the River Ribble and its estuary. These protect houses in the urban areas around the River Ribble from being flooded by sewage during heavy rainfall. Sewer overflows operating during, and following, periods of heavy rain, can result in a fall in quality of bathing water at St Annes. A significant programme of improvements to these overflows by United Utilities is on-going."

So we're less sure about Sandgate and Fairhaven not being used. We know the authorities were denying that the Fairhaven Mushroom was still active and discharging a decade or more ago. (They were asked point blank in a Fylde Environment Committee meeting we attended and said it was not discharging).

But, equally, we knew that it was.

We also know the overflows from it were not being formally monitored at that time (and maybe, if you don't have any formal results as proof, you can honestly say you think it is not discharging, and thus avoid being kicked in the softer parts of your anatomy by a Committee angry about continuing water quality failures).

So, given that historic situation, we're less than convinced about what's happening now, and what the Environment Agency tell us.

As are the MCS.

Their Rachel Wyatt said, We still need to see more investment from water companies to ensure increased monitoring of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). After heavy rain, CSOs divert untreated sewage away from overloaded sewers and treatment works and discharge it directly into rivers and coastal waters. Last year we discovered that there are around 31,000 of these overflows in operation in the UK, but less than a quarter of them are monitored to see how often they are allowing raw sewage to enter the sea. Its vital that improvements are made, so that we can fully understand what impact these pipes have on our bathing waters.

This is where the big concentrations of coliform bacteria arise, and why, on occasions, beaches were always going to fail, and have done so.

If a test date follows soon after a time of exceptionally heavy rain, the test will produce a 'fail'.

The cost of 100% protection from discharge was thought too high a price to pay when the 1990's improvements were made.

You can follow this link to look up the results of the 'St Annes North'  and
'St Annes' beaches

Those who remember the days of Fylde Water Board and water rate bills of 6 a year will know what we mean about costs. Today, after all the improvements (and the price increases to pay for them), our water rate is approaching 1,000 a year, and the job is still not right.

Readers will also see reports from various authorities from time to time who say that the source of the coliform bacteria that fail the beaches in the water tests is attributable to sheep and other livestock grazing the fields around the estuary.

Whilst that might be true to a limited extent, we don't think it's the real cause. We recall a test in the late 1990s, using cucumbers painted different colours and tossed into the river at various points along the estuary to see where they washed up, trying to figure out why the water test failure rate was so high off St Annes. (Not that many cucumbers were found at all). We suspect the problem will be where it has always been. The discharge of human effluent from overloaded combined sewers - although admittedly much less frequently than before 'Sea Change'.

That's why - in our opinion - the more recent situation co-incides with beaches failing in storm conditions.

Fylde Peninsula Water Management GroupAnd that's why - superficially at least - it seems to be a good idea to have Fylde and other Councils and statutory agencies working together on the problem as joint enterprise in the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group.

But, this group is not what we would call publicly accountable, and Fylde doesn't seem to have appointed anyone to represent them on it.

Its work is out of sight and behind closed doors, and we always regard that as a problem in itself.

It means the proposals and directions being followed are not transparent, and thus legitimate democratic influence from Fylde's elected members is less likely to be applied where and when it should be. We suspect Fylde's elected councillors don't even know what the group is doing or discussing.

Despite the fact that the main beach failure problem is in St Annes, Fylde's councillors do not appear to be directing, or even steering, the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group. Nor are they contributing their local knowledge to it. Blackpool provides its secretariat. It has no published agenda or minutes, and it's meetings are not even open for the public to attend.

As such, neither we, nor anyone else, can work out what it's doing.

Wyre BC did at least report the establishment of the group as an individual Portfolio Holder decision in August 2011, and their Councillor Roger Berry declared an interest as a member of the Group from December 2011, so Wyre have a member representative on it.

Having trawled the published minutes, agendas and member decisions from Fylde, we were unable to find any reference to the group being formed or to any Fylde member being appointed to it.

We emailed Fylde and asked if they could point us to the agenda or minutes that reported the group to councillors. It was acknowledged immediately with a promise the officer concerned would get back to us, probably the same day. Two days later we're still waiting. We'll update this report when the reply comes, but until then we have to assume none of Fylde's members are participating in the group meetings.

If Fylde's members are not taking part in what is a crucial tourism matter, how can we be sure that Fylde isn't going to be faced with having to put up with the ignominy and shame of having beaches that are judged inappropriate for bathing, and thus not fit for visitor access? And how can we, as taxpayers and electors know what is or is not being planned and progressed in our name on such important issues when the agenda and minutes of this group are not available for public consumption.

That's why we say if - as the group claim - "Fylde Council" is a member, then there ought to be member representation on the group from Fylde, and there should have already been serious and public reporting of these weighty matters to members of the Council, so that all Fylde's councillors know the score, and pressure can be applied in the right places.

Dated:  24 May 2012

UPDATE 6 June 2012
We promised readers the response to our enquiry to FBC. We were so cross when we received it, we copied our response to the officer concerned to several Councillors in the hope that one or more would see the importance of it and get a grip on what is going on. We're less sure they will.

Readers can follow this link to see the full exchange of emails.

We remain concerned that, despite our providing copies of the Wyre authorisation and Wyre member representation of the group, Fylde has no member representation, and that the process and priorities are not being driven by elected councillors. We suspect this omission will come back to haunt Fylde residents.


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