Surfers Against Sewage are the headline-grabbers on the front line in the fight to clean up the seas. The group claims credit for better water on beaches across the UK. But as the water industry cleans up its act, are the concerns of the SAS campaigners justified?
The sea slides over the sand, glittering in the autumn sunshine. Wading out deeper, the waves crash onto us, giving the first shock of the cold North Sea. We climb onto the surf-boards and paddle out, looking for dips in the surf that will let us out to where it’s just starting to break.
As we wait on the boards, rising and falling on the smaller swells, a dark, hook-billed seabird bobs past. The nearby cliffs are rich green and orange, and the sun warms our backs.
A wave rolls in, I can see where it will peak and I paddle like crazy with my arms. Suddenly the board picks up speed as the force of the wave catches it and I am hurtling towards the beach. I flip up onto my feet and for those few seconds I am walking on water, standing, racing through the breaking foam, in balance and in control.
All too soon, it ends and I drop off the board. I get the thumbs up from my companion, expert surfer Alasdair Steele, and we’re off again, working our way out for the next attempt.
On a good day like this Pease Bay, on the coast east of Dunbar, is wonderful – every bit as good as the places we think of as the home of British surfing, in North Devon and Cornwall, if not better.
On a cold rainy December day it’s less appealing, but still the vans and the cars roll up, packed with people eager to enjoy the most popular and arguably the best waves on the east coast.
Numbers of surfers grow every year, and the boom has been fuelled in part by cheaper, good-quality wetsuits. But surfing in Scotland is a sport for autumn and winter, when waves are at their best, and that fact lies behind the issue Steele and his organisation, Surfers Against Sewage – SAS – are currently tackling: the release of sewage effluent into the sea near Pease Bay.
This year is the 20th anniversary of SAS. The organisation was found by surfers in Cornwall convinced throat infections and stomach upsets that hit them when they had been in the water were caused by sewage pollution.
SAS takes some of the credit for improvements to bathing water quality in the years after its founding, drawing in surfing communities from across the UK, and bringing increasing pressure on water companies to stop the release of polluting effluent into the sea.
Steele is a former director of the organisation, which is based in Cornwall, and until recently was the SAS representative for all Scotland. A Glasgow-based American, Gabe Workman, now represents surfers in the west of Scotland, but Steele’s beat still includes the most accessible spots along the east coast.
Today at Pease, the car-park by the caravan site entrance is packed. SAS says there are 300,000 regular water users – surfers, kayakers, windsurfers, and the like – in Scotland, or 6% of the population, and it’s easy to believe from such a turnout.
“We are a big chunk of the population, and we deserve to be better protected,” says Steele.
Cove sewage station would be easy to miss. The metal structures are tucked away on a headland about a mile from Pease Bay, close to the small community of Cove. The plant serves around 600 people.
Walking down the track towards it, the plant is still almost undetectable, but step into the field next to it and you see the machinery, hear the rumble of it – and catch the sharp, coarse odour of human waste, contrasting with fresh sea air. Below, down steep broken cliffs the blue sea rolls in to break grey and dense on the rock below. It is effluent from this small plant that is the target of SAS.
During the official “bathing season”, from May to September, Scottish Water treats the waste with ultra-violet (UV) light to render almost all the bacteria in it harmless, but on September 15 each year, just as the surf season starts, the UV treatment is switched off and a dirtier effluent is pumped directly into the sea below.
SAS says there can be half a million bugs and germs in a 100 millilitres of this type of effluent, compared to just ten pathogens in that volume when the material has been treated with UV light.
As a result of this kind of material reaching the sea, says Steele, surfers can be exposed to stomach bugs and infected wounds, and serious diseases such as hepatitis A, e.Coli, dysentery and botulism.
Steele says: “There are a good number of places in England and Wales where there are similar situations, but where the UV is being left on over the winter. What we are saying is that at the beach that is very much the heartland of east coast surfing, Scotland should have a reputation as being clean, as being environmentally ahead of its competitors, not the dirty man of UK surfing.
“The majority of good waves are outside the so-called bathing season. So we have a growing community of surfers based here and a water company that is refusing to use the technology that is available to protect the health of those people.
“I know Scottish Water will talk about the cost, but the cost of treating a surfer who contracts e.Coli or hepatitis A is going to be well in excess of the cost to the taxpayer of leaving the UV treatment on in the winter.
“What we are talking about here is saving costs to the detriment of the health of the people that are going in the water – and that’s not a compromise they should be making.
“You also have to think about the experience of surfers who come from all over the place to East Lothian to surf. Do we really want to lose all the money they spend in the area, and have them go off to the north of England instead because the water companies there leave the UV on and the water’s cleaner?”
The sincerity of Steele’s concern about Cove is not in doubt. But Scottish Water says the distance of the works from the beach at Pease means there is “significant dilution and dispersion” of effluent.
In a statement Scottish Water said: “SEPA [the Scottish Environment Protection agency]… sampled Pease Bay in winter last year, and the result met the ‘excellent’ standard, contrary to the position held by SAS.”
It says the winter-time effluent from Cove is as clean as that discharged at the vast majority of sewage treatment plants in Scotland – there are only 11 places in the country that have the ultra-violet treatment for all or part of the year.
The organisation added: “Our coastal modelling shows that the tidal movement takes water from this area out to sea, and it is unlikely that even miniscule amounts of diluted effluent even reach Pease Bay. The sampling from SEPA supports this.”
The water company says the UV treatment is expensive to run and increases the company’s carbon footprint.
In fact, Scottish Water says, the only reason for having it at all is because SEPA says it must, and SEPA says it is merely a precautionary measure for an area which is not what’s officially known as a “designated bathing water”, but is just fairly close to one.
Steele’s response is swift: “What they are effectively saying is that they have the UV treatment at Cove, but it’s not really necessary. If that’s the case then they are wasting taxpayers’ money – so why bother with it at all, unless it IS needed?
“And if it’s needed in summer then it’s needed in winter when people are in the water for far longer at a time.”
During my surfing session at Pease there is no sign of any pollution.
But later I meet Ian MacKay, sunning himself in the car park next to his surfers’ van. MacKay, from Lenzie, is a three-times Scottish surfing champion, was in the British team at the world championships in 1981, and has been coming to Pease for more than 30 years.
He talks enthusiastically to a young Portuguese surfer who’s checking out Pease – the place has a genuine international reputation – and tells me in the past he’s enjoyed waves as tall as a tenement block, around the world.
“Now I don’t feel I have to compete,” he laughs.
He recalls just a month earlier sitting on his board waiting for a wave at the north-west end of the bay, closer to Cove, with a gang of surfers, when it became obvious from a strong smell there was pollution – from sewage, he believes– in the water.
“It was pretty disgusting,” he grimaces. “The surf was good so we stayed in and just tried not to swallow it. I don’t know what was causing it but I don’t think we should be put in that position, should we?”
Many of the surfers I talk to at Pease complain of getting sore throats and ear-ache after going in the water there, but none say they have been seriously ill.
A posting on the Magic Seaweed surfers’ website gets more response: one man says he and a friend were ill for several days with stomach complaints after surfing there; another says he got an eye infection.
Others say it’s generally clean, they’ve had no problems, and that there are other surf spots in Scotland which are worse affected by sewage contamination, which they say comes from combined sewage overflows, or CSOs.
CSOs are the SAS and Steele’s other main target at the moment. Where the sewerage system is combined with rainwater drains, CSOs are needed to prevent effluent backing up into homes during very heavy rain.
When the system overflows they discharge the combined effluent into rivers and the sea.
In the UK there are around 20,000 of these, with over 3,000 in Scotland. More than 500 of those in Scotland discharge directly into the sea; others are near the coast.
Steele feels real progress has been made in reducing sewage pollution in the sea. But he says: “It’s not a fait accompli. We still have a number of designated bathing beaches which are failing to pass the mandatory standard set by the European Commission.”
In his opinion, though, even that standard isn’t up to much: “If you were to fill a bath up with water and then into that pour a cup of raw sewage, that would pass the mandatory standard … I wouldn’t be having a bath in that, would you?
“It’s not sufficient protection. It was brought in in 1976 and it’s shortly to be upgraded, but the standard is woefully low.
“One of the main reasons for problems on beaches is combined storm-water overflows, or CSOs.”
Steele says they are intended to maybe only overflow once or twice a year, but he says: “Unfortunately because of climate change and the amount of building work that’s gone on, which increases run off because ground is concreted over and drained, there are some overflows that are going off twice a week.”
He is reluctant to name problem areas for fear of blighting local tourist trade, and it’s difficult to challenge many of his claims and figures, as they are drawn from a range of sources and complex documents.
Scottish Water says what it calls “diffuse pollution” – such as run-off from farmers’ fields – is now the main source of poor bathing water quality, and its treated waste water is ‘no longer the principal impact on bathing waters’.
However Steele’s contention that CSOs are frequently overflowing appears to be backed up by statistics provided by Scottish Water itself on a number of CSOs for 2007, with some overflowing dozens of times in a month.
Ideally Steele would like to see CSOs scrapped, but he appreciates the scale of the problem – most properties built before the 1960s flush their waste into combined sewer and rainwater pipes. It’s hard to argue with the water industry, which says replacing them all would be a huge investment, as would upgrading the sewage works to cope better.
Steele is aware of this, but he says a warning system when overflows have operated near bathing beaches and surfing spots – flags on beaches, maybe – would help.
“We don’t expect huge investments in the current climate, but more could be done,” he says.
In Scotland Steele counts as among the SAS’s victories helping in the prevention of ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Forth, and ensuring recreational water-users groups are statutory consultees under this year’s Marine (Scotland) Act when developments affecting coastal waters are considered.
One small win was earlier this year at Pease itself, when a digger and a dumper truck appeared on the beach, well below the low tide mark, on a rocky stretch at the eastern end of the bay.
SAS member and surfer Jason Burnett from Penicuick was concerned for two reasons – the rocks act as part of the natural defences against the sea, and removing them could affect the nature of the waves that break over them
“I know I’m not allowed to take even a few pebbles or a bucket of sand off a beach, so I knew it wasn’t right,” says Burnett.
He reported the incident to Steele, who took up the cudgels with Marine Scotland, which regulates the sea-bed. No prosecution followed, but, Steele says: “It hasn’t happened again, and I think that whoever was responsible realised it was the wrong thing to do.”
Other campaigns Steele and SAS are involved in include ensuring access to places where there are waves to surf, and trying to make sure activities such as dredging don’t affect waves.
There’s also a campaign to try to hold back the rising tide of marine litter, the mainly plastic rubbish that gets washed up in huge quantities on Scotland’s beaches.
“We are not just about protecting surfing, we have a duty as users of the marine environment to care for it. There’s a wonderful thing they do in Hawaii – every time you go out to surf, on your way back you pick up a bit of litter and take it to a bin, as a way of saying thank-you to the sea, and we want people here to do that too.”
The current drive at Pease Bay is a petition to the Scottish Government asking for a probe into recreational water use at Pease. Steel says if it can be established that there is year-round bathing there, Scottish Water can be compelled to continue the UV treatment all year.
The government says it’s possible – although they do point out that cost would be a factor in any decision. Steele says SAS’s steady pressure has paid off in the past, and adds simply: “We will get there on Pease Bay.”
Surfing in Scotland is for the hardy. The best waves are in winter when storms kick up big swells, and that means a dedication to the sport which can seem slightly crazy.
Last winter Jason Burnett and his friends surfed through some of the coldest weather for decades.
“It gets so the water is warmer than the air,” he says. “It’s actually a relief to get in the sea when the air temperature is minus seven, there’s wind-chill, and you’re starting to go numb.”
When Burnett started surfing 19 years ago, aged 17, wetsuits were not so good.
“In winter we would have to wear two wetsuits and a pair of heavy divers’ gloves,” he says. “Even so you could only last about an hour. But there was nothing else for it – if you wanted to surf that’s what you did.”
Cold-water surfing can have unpleasant consequences – too much of it can result in deafness, as the ears react to icy water flowing in by producing bony growths to block the ear passages.
These days thick modern wetsuits can allow a couple of hours in the water even in the depths of winter.
But a neoprene wetsuit hood is essential: “If you don’t have one you get the worst ice-cream headache you can imagine,” Burnett laughs.
Though born in London, Edinburgh-based SAS representative Alistair Steele’s parents are Scots, and he came to university in Aberdeen when he was 17.
Then, his passion was wind-surfing. He studied land economy, but says: “The main thing that I wanted was to be at a university that was on the sea.
“When we were at university we used to windsurf in a place just north of Aberdeen. We used to come out of the water feeling terrible when we had been out, and were never quite sure what it was – we just thought it was the cold.
“Then I read in a surfers’ magazine about SAS, and that was when we found out that the village surrounding the spot where we were windsurfing discharged raw sewage into the estuary there, so it started to make sense that we weren’t feeling so good.
“We thought it was quite a good idea to get involved in SAS and support them, and of course we were quite young and thought it was cool to be wearing a Surfers Against Sewage T-shirt.”
After leaving university he got a job in Shetland helping local people make compensation claims in the aftermath of the Braer oil tanker disaster in 1993.
Later he worked in marine consultancy, and got the call to become the Scottish regional representative of Surfers Against Sewage. He was a director of the organisation until the difficulty of attending meetings in Cornwall from his home in Edinburgh made it impossible.
While tall, tanned, smiling Steele looks every inch the relaxed surfer, he now works as a property surveyor and clearly brings the drive of a career professional to his SAS campaigns.