Wednesday, 2 September 2020

The Big Stink

IN 2016, after 8 years of a legal action at the European Court, the UK Government was convicted of being in breach of the EU Urban Waste Water Directive in Llanelli,
a law which states that all urban sewage should be completely treated before discharge into any body of water. Not only was the local sewage treatment provider Welsh Water, spilling raw sewage into the Loughor Estuary/Burry Inlet but it was also aware that this site was supposedly a nature reserve and major Cockle fishery with E.U, Natura status. In Llanelli, an inadequate new sewage treatment plant had been in operation since 1997 , replacing many smaller ones and using UV light to kill the bugs. As the town grew with much new housing the sewage discharges increased. The rich cockle fishery was greatly diminished and in 2005 a mass cockle death event occurred known as the “big Stink” when millions of cockles rose to the surface of the Loughor estuary, died and rotted THe picture seems to show a shingle beach.It is the shells of millions of dead cockles in 2005. As this was Wales,huge efforts were made to hide the inadequacy of the local sewage system. Several reports suggested all sorts of reasons other than the sewage that could be killing the cockles and other wildlife. One of the worst deceptions was blaming, a “new” protozoal parasite Minchinia Mercinaria which was was said by a National Resources Wales officer to have caused havoc in the clam beds of Virginia. When I tracked down the scientific paper and its authors the organism had in fact not killed a single clam. The USA clam fishery is major business and “High Tech”. The “new” microscopic parasite was not a new organism to the world. It had been found in a routine sample of 180 juvenile hard clams. One of them had a small infection. Electron microscopy showed it had a new variant of a Minchinia parasite not yet described in the literature. The Virginia studies showed it to be harmless,,with 30% of other clams in the group showing antibodies to it having made a complete recovery. The only clams that died were those deliberately killed and dissected to find the parasites and antibodies The researchers realised that it was not a new organism as reports of it came in from all over the world when they published their techniques, and findings, including Llanelli. It could not have spread worldwide so quickly from Virginia but our local Cockle gatherers were blamed for bringing it in to the cockle beds on their boots. The fact that the Americans had shown it to be of no commercial significance, ie harmless to their fisheries, was kept from the public. Other theories included suicide by oversexed cockles, however the deaths were seasonal and similar to other sewage polluted waterways, where algal blooms reduce oxygen levels, suffocating shellfish.and other water dwellers.. The County Council Senior Officers must have been fully aware and kept on encouraging the Councillors to grant planning permission for more new houses, mainly for incomers , telling the county Councillors that more homes meant more council tax. A case was accepted by the European Court in 2008 in the name of Mr David Conrad Rees, Chair of the Sandy and Stradey Residents Committee, representing an area where sewage flooding was a serious problem.. He was joined by local cockle hand gatherers, many of whom had lost much their fishing grounds After 8 years of excuses and denials in Carmarthenshire,,the UK Government accepted guilt. Members of the public had to fight to prove the breach in EU rules. Welsh Water submitted a plan to provide more sewage treatment without the huge expense of building a new sewage treatment plant. It was called “Rainscape”. The idea was to remove surface water from the sewers by draining it away in a new pipe . The major element of Rainscape, the digging of a 1.5metre drainage tunnel to drain the groundwater from south Llanelli, has stalled and Rainscape has not yet been completed. The problem is that the drilling rig  appears to have hit one of the large aquifers which lie under the town and had somehow been missed  in the surveying of the tunnel route. This aquifer was uncharted and very large and extends under the train station and railway tracks. I have seen the Morgan Sindall report showing that there are difficulties in extracting this water and essentially nowhere to safely pump it to, at the time of writing the report, It also runs the danger of shifting the existing rail tracks if a void is formed beneath them. High groundwater levels are also a problem and could quickly refill the aquifer. There are ways of puttting a tunnel through an area like this but I am told these are civil engineering projects of high cost and some risk. Has Welsh Water got the funds to do this? This has meant that the last section of the Rainscape tunnel remains unfinished. As this is the scheme designed to produce the  improvement demanded by the European Court .There is no news. The Scheme cost over £90 million. . I’m concerned that raw sewage is still being discharged into the Burry Inlet and there is no sign of a plan B. Even more worrying is the County Council appears to have given planning permission for numerous buildings in the Llanelli catchment area over the past few years without checking that any improvement in sewage discharges had been achieved, surely adding  to the foul sewage loads into a Natura Wildlife site, and likely further deterioration of the very poorly "protected" habitats.  In Welsh tradition there have been few surveys of the wildlife or bacterial water quality studies – if you don’t look maybe no-one will notice! Llanelli Beach was last tested, I believe in 2009 , and the numbers of bacteria were so high the Council stopped testing. It is not a designated bathing beach and as it is owned by the council, who know it is probably still polluted, with never ne allowed to be. However, it is used for bathing and paddling by visitors. I have asked the County Council for the beach water to be tested many times. Unfortunately only "designated bathing beaches" are regulated and have regular testing, Llanelli Beach does not qualitf.
To me this looks like the Rainscape project has, at best , stalled and at worst, failed .I can see why it is difficult to dig the tunnel under the station but surely we should know the prognosis of the scheme? If it has failed or been seriously delayed it has significant planning implications and a new way must be found to clean up the estuary, instead of deliberately worsening of the pollution of our estuary. As the health of the Estuary is not regularly tested it could simply be declared “dead”, of no wildlife value and that I suspect , may be the goal, an argument o allow the pollution as much of the habitat has already been destroyed. It has been suggested to me that the project is on stop as Welsh Water hopes that leaving the EU will negate the findings against the UK in the European Court. Why do our elected Councillors allow the Burry Inlet to be an open sewer? I’d love to see it returned to a clean wildlife haven and prosperous fishery..The UK Government has accepted that there was a serious breach of the E.U. Urban Waste Water Directive in Llanelli , and expected Welsh Government,,through NRW as the regulating body and Welsh Water as the polluter, to remedy the situation long ago. Something has gone wrong and no-one is telling! It appears. very little has been done as requested by the European Court.. Welsh Water explain that without the frequent sewage spills into the estuary Llanelli would flood again with sewage and the pollution of the estuary and fishery is therefore necessary to preserve public health. What sort of 3rd world country do we live in?