Are our beaches coming clean?
Despite a wealth of projects and a lot of money, Britain's bathing waters are still falling foul of EU law. Chris Webb looks at what has been done and what work needs to be undertaken
The problem of coastal discharges stems from the fact that much of the sewerage systems in coastal towns was built by the Victorians. As tourism flourished over the years, wastewater in these towns, typically directed to short sea outfalls, discharged untreated into the sea. It was only after water privatisation in the late 1980s that the scale of effort needed to comply with EU legislation became apparent.
Coryton's Cove in the south Devon resort of Dawlish is one of 47 beaches which briefly failed to test below maximum permitted pollution levels set out in the EC bathing water quality directive. In August officials raised the red flag over the beach, banning swimming during one of the busiest weeks of the holiday season. Little more than a mile from Dawlish Warren, where last year eight-year-old Heather Preen fell ill and later died following an outbreak of E.coli poisoning, Coryton's Cove's managers were taking no chances. Then, just days later, further tests gave the beach the all clear. It is an all-too-familiar story to water companies whose ongoing efforts to bring beaches up to scratch are a very public affair. Stories such as Coryton's Cove's are the staple diet of an unforgiving seaside provincial media.
News the EC is to take Britain to the European Court of Justice for failing to ensure enough of its beaches meet requirements set out in the directive merely served to add fuel to the debate on the quality of the UK's coastal waters. Margot Wallström, the EU environment commissioner, is baying for Britain's blood. The commission is, she said, serious about ensuring bathing water quality compliance in all member states, and is determined to seek satisfaction in the courts to set an example.
Water companies, meanwhile, maintain that because the quality of a number of bathing waters straddles the borderline between compliance and non-compliance, there is always a statistical risk some of them will pass in one year and fail in another even though actual quality has not significantly changed. They say real changes in quality can also occur from year to year simply as a result of differences in the weather. But sustained improvements are, they claim, now being achieved as a result of huge investment since privatisation.
In the case of Dawlish, a solution to its woes may be only weeks away. South West Water is spending £311M to provide the town with a new STW, due to be completed by the end of the year, and in Dawlish Warren a series of measures have been put in place following the inquest into the death of Heather Preen. The source of the E.coli 0157 bacteria was never traced, but the South Devon coroner, Hamish Turner, recommended several measures be observed, and the town's officials introduced a number of precautions, among them a by-law banning dogs from the entire Dawlish Warren beach in the summer months, and additional mechanical cleaning.
Just to the south, Torbay, the region's busiest tourist retreat, reported all but two of the resort's seven beaches received Blue Flag ratings in the latest tests carried out by the Environment Agency (EA). Other problems in the south west are in the process of being addressed, and South West Water is two-thirds of the way through a 15-year plan to replace 227 raw sewage outfalls on the Devon and Cornish coastline with STWs. South West's Clean Sweep programme is costing £1bn.
Dirty beaches are not confined to any one region. As the summer reached its peak the east coast resort of Cleethorpes, was ruled out of bounds for swimmers. Despite millions of pounds having been lavished on a local clean-up, resulting in 98% of samples taken last year hitting the mandatory standard, a permanent solution to the beach's erratic performance remains elusive. The problem is even more baffling as Cleethorpes has one of the most modern STWs in the country, if not Europe.
In the north east, Northumbrian Water has battled with similar problems and is reaching the end of a £38.5M project at Horden and another £27.5M scheme at Seaham, including 1,500m-long sea outfall as part of its programme to improve discharges. The schemes are designed to cope with domestic waste from 100,000 people in east Durham and significantly improve bathing water quality in the area.
The north west of England has 34 designated coastal bathing waters, of which 21 passed EU standards in 1998, thanks largely to North West's £2bn spending on environmental improvement projects between 1995 and 2000. It is a similar story for Yorkshire Water, which claims to have installed more tertiary (ultraviolet) treatment capacity than any other water company in the UK, a factor which has done much to appease Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).
Yet in spite of the water companies' best efforts, the number of British beaches officially classed as polluted remains among the highest in Europe, only 91% of the 535 beaches monitored were found to comply with the minimum standards, compared with a European average of 95%. Barely half of the British resorts tested met with the much tougher 'recommended' standards, leading Brussels to issue warning that quality had to improve.
The water industry can draw some comfort from a growing library of data pointing to a significant improvement in bathing water standards since a low point in 1993. It was then the EU took Britain to court after judges ruled EU law had been flouted by the poor state of three beaches in Blackpool and the coastline at Southport. No financial penalty was imposed then, but the government had to pay costs.
Further optimism comes from the Tidy Britain Group, which coordinates the Blue Flag scheme in the UK on behalf of the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe (FEEE). It awarded Blue Flags to 57 beaches and 29 marinas in the UK this year, a record number. Wales doubled its 1999 number of Blue Flag beaches to 22 in 2000. In England, 24 beaches made the grade, up one on last year's total, while in Scotland, three beaches received awards, compared with just one last year.
There was still further encouragement at the beginning of the summer from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) when it published a welcome document, in mitigation to the otherwise pessimistic picture painted by the EC, reporting there were more clean beaches to choose from than ever before. In its Good Beach Guide 2000, MCS recommended a record number of beaches, 215 in total and 35 more than in 1999.
A decrease in sewage pollution has been recorded along many parts of the UK's coastline. Previous highly contaminated areas such as northern England and Scotland have recorded improvements in bathing water quality, and for the first time the Good Beach Guide 2000 recommends beaches in the north west. The number of beaches throughout the UK which failed the lowest water quality standards has also declined significantly compared to last year.
"These are all signs the extensive clean-up programmes are paying off," said Kate Hutchinson, coastal pollution officer for the MCS, "but raw and inadequately treated sewage is still being discharged into coastal waters. It is unacceptable in the new millennium for the public to be exposed to pathogens from sewage contamination."
A number of schemes, part of a £2bn programme to improve bathing water quality, have yet to be completed. The government has also approved a programme to raise compliance with mandatory EU standards to 97% by 2005. The programme includes improvement of a substantial number of storm basins. Many companies have gone further than required under the directive, providing not just primary, but secondary and sometimes tertiary treatment. However, as last summer showed, there is still some way to go.