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Sewage Kills Cockling

Sewage Kills CocklingIn our 24th May article 'Sewage Sea Shore' we highlighted an issue that we thought could, and quite possibly would, turn out to produce significant problems.

The first of these has now arrived. The North Western Inshore and Fisheries Conservation Authority (NWIFCA) - on the advice of Environmental Health officers from West Lancashire Council - have reversed their decision to re-open the cockling beds just off our coast. During the week commencing 9 July, West Lancs officers found the cockles had very high levels E.Coli bacteria and other faecal coliforms.

The cockles were declared unfit for human consumption and dangerous to eat, even if cooked, and trade in Ribble cockles has been prohibited until further notice and the cockle beds will remain closed until contamination reduces to safer levels.

The notice on the NWIFCA website says


Before they will consider re-opening the cockling beds to fishermen, NWIFCA stipulate there must be at least 2 consecutive seawater samples (with samples taken a week apart) that are not contaminated with coliform bacteria.

They go on to suggest that "it may take significantly longer than 2 weeks for serious contamination to return to acceptable levels"

That's not good news for Lytham's fishermen, and not good news for those looking to enjoy Lytham's shellfish delicacies during the Open Golf being held this week.

It's also not good news for tourism in Fylde - as this story about our beaches is plastered across the media.

It also shows that the pollution of our beaches today has once again reached the level where it is a danger to human health, but FBC shows no sense of urgency about tackling it. Time was when something like this happened, the Committee responsible would summon people from the forerunners of the Environment Agency and United Utilities and haul them over the coals in open public committee to ensure swift action to rectify the matter. But today, no-one seems that bothered.

We think there are a lot of questions to be asked here.

The first that springs to mind is why was it found by West Lancashire's Environmental Health Officers? Has Fylde contracted out its public health service to West Lancs now?, and if not, why wasn't it Fylde's public helath officers that thought to test the water and look at the cockles? Have they looked at the other shellfish collected from our beaches - shrimps and so on? Have they assessed the health of fish swimming in the sewage polluted water off our coast. What steps have been taken to protect the health of bathers?

But the biggest question of all is what are our elected Councillors doing about it? Who is in charge?, and why were they not more on the ball than they have been so far?

As we said in 'Sewage Sea Shore' - so far as we can see, no councillor at Fylde has a proper handle on this sewage issue.

Once again, like the disaster that was Melton Grove, and Streetscene, and Queensway, it has been left to officers to get on with it and they have apparently failed to do so with sufficient urgency and adequacy. This is a disgraceful neglect of public duty when bathing water quality is to vital to the lifeblood of tourism in Fylde.

There remains a real threat that in St Annes - our primary holiday area - we could see notices on the beaches advising against swimming in the next few years.

And if the beaches continue to fail water quality tests, that advice would become permanent and the relevant beach(es) would be closed to visitors.

But Fylde just fiddles whilst coliforms proliferate and sewage pollutes our beaches.

And if you think it's bad enough now, just wait until the new European water quality standards come into effect.

Starting this summer (2012), our beaches will be ranked under new standards, which will make passing the water quality tests about twice as hard as they have been up to now. And if, by 2015, they have not made the grade, the beaches will be declared a health hazard.

We have previously said that in our view, the problem of too many coliform bacteria (which are the test markers for contamination by faecal matter) come not so much from sheep and cows along the banks of the Ribble as some would have us believe, but from discharges of human sewage when heavy rain flushes and surges it through mixed-content drains which pre-date more modern systems in which surface water (eg from roofs, roads and fields) is kept separate from that arising from sewage and kitchen sinks - which has to be treated before it can be returned to the sea.

When we get periods of heavy rainfall, the transportation sewer pipes (and thus the sewage treatment works at the end of them) can't handle the volume - and overflow routes (either automatic or manually operated) come into play. These overflow routes result in raw sewage being discharged into rivers and the sea.

For some time, it was not as bad as it used to be. There were massive improvements in the 'Sea Change' scheme in 1994. They cut the discharge frequency very significantly, but we have kept building more houses, so the discharges are, once again, becoming more (and too) frequent.

As a result, 'St Annes North' beach has been failing tests *at the current standards*.

It will require huge improvements to get it anywhere near meeting standards that are in effect twice as hard to meet, and we honestly can't see those standards being met. But no-one at Fylde seems too bothered about it. (But they might have to be soon)

We don't know the discharge frequency of raw sewage at St Annes (fifteen or twenty years ago it used to be 4 or 5 times in a typical year, but now we wouldn't be surprised to find it being three times that figure or more). However, we were told by a United Utilities representative that the Skipool/Shard Bridge area north of Poulton is suffering raw sewage discharges into the River Wyre the region of 50 times a year, so on average, it's a weekly event.

That's a lot more than we would have expected. (and a lot more than United Utilities are happy about).

In our last article we were also very critical that Councillors at Fylde were not on top of their job.

Unlike Wyre, Fylde had not elected anyone to the 'Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group' that was set up in April 2011. Thus they were not represented on it (despite its blurb saying that 'Fylde' was a member), there had been no formal reports by officers to Cabinet, or to Council, or even to a Scrutiny Committee.

We exchanged some quite robust emails with a senor officer at Fylde at the time (they're linked in our previous article) then copied them to several senior Councillors at Fylde in the hope that someone would pick up the ball and get a grip on what was going on.

We haven't seen anything from the ruling group, but we did hear that Queen Elizabeth Oades from Kirkham has called for an item to be put on a Scrutiny Committee agenda after the summer holidays. Hopefully she will be able to ask some searching questions.

She needs to do this, because things are moving apace, and Fylde Council isn't even ready to start catching up yet, let alone taking the initiative to protect its beaches and the interests of its residents.

It is quite disgraceful that more leadership is not being shown in this matter by the leading group.

Three significant things have happened since our May report.

The first is the cockling fiasco (as left).

The second might have been a co-incidence of course, but about a fortnight after the 1,150 house development at Queensway was approved by Government, United Utilities announced it was not going to build a new sewage treatment works at Mains Lane after all. Instead, they would just build two new large capacity underground tanks (just about opposite the River Wyre Hotel).

Click to enlargeThese would act as 'balancing reservoirs' and would mitigate some of the discharges that are currently going directly into the River Wyre.

The idea is that under storm conditions, the excess sewage from combined sewer systems will flow into the new storage tanks instead of directly into the Wyre, and it will be released from those tanks, back into the pipework to the treatment works, once the storm pressure on drains has subsided.

UU Exhibition at the River WyreIt is hoped this storage will cut down discharges into the River Wyre to 'a handful' each year.

We went along to look at the exhibition of these proposals that was held recently, and had a good talk with the United Utilities people.

For those unable to get to the exhibition, we've reproduced the main plan for their tanks here in this link.

It looked to us to have been sensibly thought through and arrangements were in place to mitigate the disturbance for the few houses that were nearby.

United Utilities told us that there was still a need for a new (additional) sewage treatment works, and they are presently re-considering where to site it. (that's why we say it seems an odd co-incidence that their original plan for a 'Mains Lane' treatment site was shelved last autumn and the idea of storage tanks mooted as an alternative).

We noted the statement confirming the tanks came out a fortnight after it was decided to put 1,150 new houses on Queensway in St Annes, so we think the Queensway site, and the potentially 2,000 house site at Whyndyke Farm will be key to deciding where the new sewage treatment works goes, (although the large scale housing proposed for Thornton will also come into the equation).

At present, without input into the process from Fylde's Councillors - ie to incorporate the human side of that equation - the impact of the new treatment works on the people who already live near to wherever it goes - is not being given sufficient weight. Unlike Wyre, Fylde has no elected members nominated onto the 'Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group' which is the sounding board for UU proposals. Fylde's officers simply say they are 'keeping members informed of developments'.

We wonder if readers might like to rearrange these words into a well known phrase or saying "the dog, tail, wagging, that's the"

From their point of view, United Utilities want it close to a large fast flowing river like the Wyre or the Ribble. (They don't like having to pump the sewage because of the cost of the electricity and the carbon emission issues), but there are other factors that have to be taken into account as well.

We wondered which councillors at Fylde were inputting into United Utilities considerations at this stage. We know Cllr Maxine Chew is (because we saw her at the exhibition as well), but we couldn't see any of the Cabinet members (who now make decisions on behalf of the Council) even being aware that the process was going on.

Fylde seems ready to be consulted after the decision has been more or less made, and it's too late to influence siting policy.

The third significant thing is still in the early stages, but built into the Localism Act is a facility for Government to pass-on certain charges levied on the UK to local councils.

In common with all countries in the EU, we have to comply with our European legal obligations. If we does not, we may be brought before the European Court of Justice in what are known as 'infraction proceedings'. If the UK is found to be in breach of EU law, we must take steps to remedy that breach. If we do not, it may be brought back before the Court and a financial sanction may be imposed.

So far, the UK has never had a financial sanction imposed in relation to an infraction.

Prior to the Localism Act, payments of any financial sanctions levied on the UK as a result of a public authority’s breach of EU law, would have been the sole responsibility of the UK government. There was no mechanism in place to ensure that public authorities were held to account for their part in any failure to comply with European law. Such misalignment in accountability meant there was less incentive for public authorities to meet their obligations and avoid any financial sanctions falling on UK taxpayers.

The European Court of Justice can impose as the financial sanction a lump sum and/or ongoing penalty payments until such point as compliance is achieved. Financial sanctions could be significant, (based on the UK’s GDP, the minimum lump sum - if one were imposed as a fine - would be €8.992 million). There are also additional daily or periodic penalty payments.

Financial sanctions incurred by other countries illustrate how this could work. For example, in a Spanish bathing water case, the levy was €624,000 a year for each one percent of bathing waters in breach of the relevant Directive. In a French fishing case, the levy was a €20m lump sum financial sanction and €58m every six months until resolved.

Up to now, the UK Government would have been liable to pay such fines, but it is now taking powers that mean in some circumstances, it can 'pass on' such 'fines' to a local authority.

This is because Part 2 of the Localism Act introduces a discretionary power for a Minister to require a public authority to pay some, or all, of a European Court of Justice financial sanction where the public authority has demonstrably caused *or contributed to* (our emphasis) that sanction.

Admittedly, such costs are only likely to be incurred by public authorities that had responsibility to comply, and had demonstrably caused or contributed to the financial sanction, and they also have to have been designated under the Localism Act for the infraction case in question - so it looks as though there would be a number of 'warnings' first. but nevertheless surcharging is a potential problem..

Government says it expects that using the provisions in the Act will "incentivise compliance by public authorities", and the risk of financial sanctions being allocated to the UK (and therefore the risk to public authorities) will be significantly reduced.

The two big concerns in this matter both regard pollution - water quality and air quality (and especially the aviation fuel aspects for people living near airports)..

Readers will note that Fylde has both river and bathing waters, and an airport.

We also seem to have Members - and maybe some officers - who are not on top of their game.

But even without the prospect of EU fines, the potential for damage to Fylde's tourism industry demands a more robust response from those in charge.

We'll bring you more on this topic as it arrives

Dated:  20 July 2012


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