With a bit of fortuitous timing, a few days after the Scottish Government made it a little easier to bring challenges to official decisions in environmental matters, they announced a decision which, on the face of things, looks eminently challengeable.
Scottish Ministers, presumably in the person of the new Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, decided not to call in Lakeland Marine Farm’s application to SEPA for a licence to dump effluent and other toxic materials in the Seil Sound from a proposed industrial installation housing up to 2,500 tonnes of salmon, equivalent to a population of 600,000 mature fish.
Those who have been following the saga of Ardmaddy will know the history.
The story started in the early 2000s when an installation at Loch Riddon was found to be polluting to such an extent that the local wild salmon population had effectively become extinct and there was a lot of pressure for it to be removed.
Following a series of working group meetings among representatives of Scottish Government, the industry and wild fish interests it was decided to move the facility by adding it to the existing Pan Fish unit at Ardmaddy, near the North end of Seil Sound.
Residents of Seil were not consulted. After some intense lobbying Argyll & Bute Council duly granted planning consent for this under the fast-track delegated procedure without a public hearing and SEPA granted a discharge consent, technically termed a CAR licence.
In granting the CAR licence SEPA relied on a computer modelling system known as Autodepomod. Factors such as known tidal stream data, seabed conditions and quantities are inputted. The computer then makes a prediction of the amount of pollution – i.e. toxic chemicals, faecal waste, uneaten food and so on – that the local ecology can handle.
Fish ‘farming’ is one of the few industries that are permitted by law actively to pollute the environment; but a company may only do so within an area known as the ‘allowable zone of effects’ (AZE).
After a few years it became clear from reports filed by the operating company with SEPA that the unit at Ardmaddy was polluting way beyond the permitted AZE. The most likely cause was the fact that tidal streams had proved much stronger than previously thought, carrying waste particles suspended in water way beyond the aze.
Everyone knows that if flawed data is inputted to a computer the results will also be flawed. ‘Rubbish in rubbish out’ proved to be literally true at Ardmaddy.
The sensible option might have been to reduce production from the polluting level of 1,300 tonnes to the previous 800 tonnes, at which the reports filed by Pan Fish had indicated ‘acceptable’ levels of pollution.
As an alternative the company, now Lakeland Marine Farm Limited, decided to relocate to another site a little further South, opposite the entrance to the Cuan Sound. To do so they required, in addition to planning consent, a fresh CAR licence.
The applications were duly made – but not just for permission to produce 1,300 tonnes. Instead, Lakeland sought permission to produced 2,500 tonnes. The basis for this was an assessment made by, you’ve guessed it, the same Autodepomod computer modelling system that had failed at the original site.
In fact 2,500 tonnes is the current maximum that the computer modelling can handle and accordingly the maximum that SEPA can consider consenting.
One does not need to be opposed to fish farming in general to find this deeply disturbing. Nor does the fact that computer modelling failed at Ardmaddy mean that the entire Autodepomod system is flawed. In suitable locations, where tidal streams have been accurately plotted and the local seabed conditions and geography properly assessed, it may well be fine.
Sea lochs are known to be tricky and treated as such by the system, but incredibly Seil Sound is not officially viewed as a sea loch. I suspect that the respectable scientists who developed Autodepomod as a useful tool would not disagree and would be concerned that the reputation of their product was being put at risk by its use in an inappropriate location.
In deciding to back SEPA in its total reliance on the computer, Scottish Ministers have lost a valuable opportunity to have the process thoroughly investigated via an inquiry before an independent reporter, hearing evidence from marine and scientific experts.
This would have been helpful, not only in safeguarding the local ecology at Seil, but to the aquaculture industry in general.
This article has looked exclusively at the issue of pollution, because that is what concerns SEPA and the CAR licensing system.
Many other issues are involved though and the fight is not lost just because the Scottish Government has decided that a licence to pollute the seabed at Ardmaddy should be granted.
Lakeland Marine Farm shoot seals and they want a licence to do so at Ardmaddy.
They may use acoustic scaring devices, intended to frighten seals away – despite evidence in research sponsored by the government itself that these damage other protected species such as porpoises and dolphins.
Incredibly, SEPA do not consider sea-lice to be pollution, so the effects on wild fish have not been properly assessed.
Under European legislation there should have been environmental assessments into these further matters, especially as the Seil Sound discharges directly into the Firth of Lorn Marine Special Area of Conservation, whose Southern boundary lies at the Cleit Rock in the Cuan.
Ignoring the issues may place the government in breach of the Habitats Directive with resultant complaints to the European Commission.
These general concerns have been recognised by Mike Russell MSP. In a letter to Argyll & Bute Council he wrote inter alia that ‘The grounds for objection are many and varied and include damage to tourism, loss of navigable water, possible danger to wildlife and interruption to kayaking which has grown greatly in the area and detriment to the special area of conservation.’
The final decision will now be left to Argyll & Bute Council when the matter comes back to the planning committee. The planning application attracted about 800 objections and was put on hold to allow the pollution issues to be resolved.
The planning officers and the elected members will do their best – and they will do so knowing that there is a huge question mark hanging over the methodology adopted by SEPA and with the limited resources available to them in these cash-strapped times.
To finish by quoting Mike Russell again – ‘at the very least there should be a public local inquiry’ – precisely what the Scottish Ministers have now ruled out in refusing to call in the CAR application.