EU’s waste water directive could threaten coastal wildlife

The European Union’s stringent Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive is rapidly reducing nutrients being deposited into coastal areas, cutting the numbers of molluscs and worms in these areas, which could result in starvation for coastal birds, reports The Economist magazine.

Britain’s shores as a whole are home to a wide range of birds, many of which thrive on molluscs and worms which, in turn, have for years lived off the hundreds of tonnes of sewage poured daily into coastal waters, says The Economist. But now the EU is forcing the country to remove this nutritious material from its shoreline (see related story). “Never in the history of waste water treatment in Britain has so much been done to clean up discharges in so many places over such a short time,” Chris Spray, Northumbrian Water’s Environment Director is reported as saying.

The effects of the directive are already being felt in the North of England, in Northumberland, where scientists have been commissioned by Northumbrian water to monitor an estuary at the small town of Amble to find out if coastal birds are on the decline. “Something like a third of the organic particles at Amble have their origin from sewage discharges,” Peter Evans, a conservation biologist at Durham University is reported as saying. “We can expect some notable effects when these are removed.” Evans says that he fears in particular for the small variety of purple sandpipers which migrate to Amble from Norway, and which could be the first to suffer from the nutrient shortage. Bird species on nearby Coquet Island also include the endangered roseate tern, the future of which is unknown. On the Firth of Forth, however, large populations of scaup, a diving duck, vanished after the effluent was cleaned up, says Spray.

The European Commission is less concerned about the matter. “It’s true that a rubbish tip will provide conditions that will be attractive to some birds, but those conditions are artificial,” said a spokesman.

The British Trust for Ornithology is currently studying the problem around the country.

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