Scottish review of land spreading of organic waste

A wide-ranging review of the disposal of organic wastes to land has been commissioned by the Scottish Office in response to growing public concern about the health and environmental hazards posed by sewage sludge, industrial waste and carcase disposal practices.

The review is to be conducted by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and is scheduled for completion in early autumn. Officials conducting the review will report to a steering group drawn from the Agency, the Scottish Office and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

The review follows growing concern about the nuisance and health risks posed by several current disposal practices. Examples include a major sewage sludge injection operation in north-east Fife which has been criticised for causing odour nuisances and threatening pollution of watercourses feeding a water supply reservoir.

The problem may be compounded by the lateness of Scotland's water industry in developing outlets for sewage sludge currently dumped at sea. The dumping operations must cease by the end of the year, and two companies will have large amounts of sludge to dispose of for the subsequent two years before investments in alternative disposal methods are completed. Both are expecting to use landfills as an interim outlet, but suitable facilities have yet to be fully identified (ENDS Report 279, pp 17-20 ).

Worries have also been raised about a Lanarkshire operation injecting abattoir waste into agricultural land which polluted a stream. A television documentary suggested that the practice of allowing animals to graze on the treated land could also allow pathogens to enter the human food chain. The injection operation was in an area where there have been two recent outbreaks of E. coli 0157 poisoning.

Another focus of concern is the diminishing number of abattoirs and knackeries in Scotland. The recent closure of a knackery in south-west Scotland, for example, will mean that fallen stock has to be sent up to 70 miles to the nearest alternative facility. The high cost involved is pushing farmers towards burying fallen stock on farm, often in locations where water pollution risks are high because of adverse ground conditions. A recent SEPA paper warned that "a once regulated and concentrated [carcase disposal] activity has become an unregulated dispersed potential disaster."

SEPA's review will examine the effects of land spreading of sewage sludge and other wastes, burial of fallen stock and disposal of composted municipal waste in relation to public, animal and plant health, environmental pollution and soil protection. It will also consider the need to tighten current legislation and guidance.

The Scottish exercise coincides with a review of controls on land spreading of sewage sludge which is being conducted for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions by consultants WRc. Concentrating mainly on microbiological risks, this is likely to be completed within the next few weeks. A separate Environment Agency review of land spreading of industrial wastes is also nearing completion.

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