I attended a public meeting this morning, hosted by the West Fife Villages Forum, at the High Valleyfield Community Centre.
In April 2017, villages in West Fife were shrouded in thick dust clouds, coming from the industrial waste in the Low Valleyfield ash lagoons. These massive lagoons contain millions of tonnes of ash slurry created as waste product from Longannet Power Station, which closed in April 2016.
The industrial waste from Longannet Power Station has led to the creation of a huge man-made outlet in the River Forth. The lagoons cover an area of about 540 acres. It is the largest site of its kind in the UK.
For decades, people in west fife have complained about dust clouds coming off the lagoons and polluting their communities, particularly in drier weather conditions when the lagoons dry out and the ash is lifted by the wind.
The industrial waste at the lagoons is toxic. It contains several carcinogens and volatile polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) including benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), which has no known safety level, and for which no threshold value limit has ever been set.
Scottish Power offered to pay to wash cars; the NHS told local people to remain indoors and keep their windows and doors shut.
Angered by the horrendous dust clouds which have shrouded their villages, and enraged by the seeming inadequacy of officialdom’s response, the communities of West Fife demanded the attendance of representatives from Scottish Power, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Fife Council and NHS Fife to hear and address their complaints and concerns.
The public meeting was well attended, and chaired by Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP. The communities who have faced recurring pollution from the waste produced by Longannet Power Station rightly demand answers to a wide range of questions over the nature and extent of the toxicity of the dust and potential health implications, as well as assurance that dust from the lagoons will never again be allowed to contaminate communities.
Where once upon a time a Saturday morning gathering of public officials in Scotland might have garnered the respect of the community merely by their presence, 2017 Valleyfield is a very different community and residents assembled to hold those representatives to account.
In the age of the ubiquitous camera phone which allows anyone to document the scale, frequency and duration of the invading dust clouds and access to the internet where people are able to carry out their own research into hazards and risks, the official narrative is not being accepted without serious questioning from the community.
The community demands honest responses to their concerns. They demand honesty and transparency from the very public servants who appear to them to be busy sidestepping blame and responsibility from an industrial pollution scandal and who offer nothing more than hollow assurance for the future.
Scottish Power has known for decades that, in certain conditions, polluting dust from the lagoons will be carried on the winds to envelop and fall on communities across west Fife. Any yet Scottish Power took the decision to cease water suppression of the lagoons. What factors, other than the cost of water suppression, did Scottish Power take into account in arriving at that decision? What advice, if any, did they seek from SEPA or Fife Council about the consequences of ceasing water suppression, and what advice, if any, did they receive?
Scottish Power has never placed dust monitoring equipment on site at the lagoons to measure the level and content of airborne dust, or the direction of travel of any such dust; or monitored the effectiveness of dust suppression methods to prevent dispersal of dust from the lagoons.
The decision by Scottish Power to cease water suppression at the lagoons can only have been taken to save costs. West Fife Communities cannot be blamed for accusing Scottish Power of placing the interests of Scottish Power shareholders over the health and safety of the thousands of people who have built homes for them, their children and grandchildren downwind of Longannet’s ash lagoons.
The legal responsibility for controlling the release of dust at source lies solely with Scottish Power. After the event, they have reintroduced water suppression on site but they still have no dust monitoring equipment on site to measure the nature and extent of any airborne dust or the effectiveness of those suppression methods.
The community has further questions to ask of both SEPA and Fife Council’s environmental protection officials. Why was Scottish Power able to cease water suppression of the ash in the lagoons? Why have they never insisted on permanent gravimetric dust sampling instruments being maintained at the ash lagoons to monitor dust levels? Why do they appear to have taken no steps to ensure Scottish Power has in place and maintains effective monitoring of the lagoons to prevent the spread of industrial waste? Why have they done so little to reassure communities that they are safe from the toxic industrial waste which sits on their doorstep?
Why have SEPA failed to complete chemical analysis of the recent dust clouds which have plagued west Fife since April 2017?
Why does NHS Fife tell the communities that the dust clouds pose no threat to health when no chemical analysis of the dust cloud has taken place? Why were they so surprised that a community should be angry and concerned when they are told by the NHS that, nevertheless, people should keep their windows and doors sealed shut?
Why did the NHS tell the people of west Fife that the average levels of PM10 detected at Culross and Valleyfield were in line with the rest of Scotland, particularly when those communities faced dust conditions akin to the Great Smog of London in December 1952? When residents of Valleyfield, who have complained of toxic dust clouds for decades, look out their windows in May and visibility is reduced to a few hundred yards?
They are angry because the very public bodies and officials who exist for no other purpose than to protect the communities appear to have failed in their duties.
They offer no effective reassurance and they appear, to a very sceptical community, that they are circling the wagons and protecting their own. The people of west Fife don’t believe officialdom is behaving in a transparent way, or acting as if they have the community’s best interests at the heart of what they are doing.
And they are frightened because, as has so often happened before in Scotland’s past, it is individuals in the communities who face the sometimes fatal consequences of our industrial legacy.
It is simply not possible to say what effect, if any, the Valleyfield ash lagoons will have on the long term public health. In the short term, however, many people in west Fife have complained of symptoms including irritation the nose and eyes, productive coughs, and aggravation of asthma conditions.
Anyone who has suffered from such short term symptoms potentially have perfectly stateable compensation claims against those who failed to prevent the release of dust from the lagoons. While the value of individual claims may be modest, if everyone in west Fife who suffered such complaints comes forward, then it may prove very expensive for Scottish Power and deliver a clear message that the communities of west Fife will not tolerate negligence on the part of those who have duties to protect them from industrial waste.
Blog by Bruce Shields, Partner