No Contamination at Scottish School Site



Further to our 11 July update, the Scottish school campus at the centre of a contamination controversy has been found to be safe: see ENDS Report 20 August 2019.

The campus was built on a site previously used for landfill. School users became increasingly concerned following a number of developments, including the discovery of blue-tinted water, several staff members being diagnosed with bladder cancer, and reports of children having elevated levels of arsenic in their blood and falling ill.

North Lanarkshire Council attempted unsuccessfully to reassure the public, relying partly on material relating to the grant of planning permission, and partly on a recent investigation by the NHS Lanarkshire Department of Public Health. The Scottish government therefore set up an independent review, led by the Chief Planning Reporter and a former Director of Public Health.

On 9 August, the review team published its findings in an 82-page report. The report considered the assessments and remediation works undertaken during the planning process, the NHS Lanarkshire investigation, and the results of tests commissioned by the review team itself. It looked into all of the material public health concerns and met with a large number of people, including school staff, parents and pupils.

The review found that the site is safe, and that there is no causal link between the developments which led to public alarm and any ill-health among staff or pupils. It concluded that there is no connection between arsenic and the bladder cancer cases, that the water at the campus is safe to drink, and that the blue water found in the past was caused by copper, which is not a significant health risk. The review team did not have any concerns with a methane gas membrane installed as a precautionary measure after planning permission was granted, nor with gases at the site. It found one localised soil sample with elevated levels of PCBs and advised remediation on a precautionary basis in order to restore confidence, while emphasising that this did not represent an unacceptable risk. The review further found that the work done during the planning process was thorough and professional, and that the decisions made at that time by North Lanarkshire Council were reasonable and appropriate.

Nonetheless, the report concluded that parents and teachers were right to raise concerns and to expect that they would be taken seriously and addressed. Some of the criticisms of the public officials involved had been unfair, and they had worked professionally to resolve an unusual situation, but there were also failings by North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire. These included that the Council was too slow and defensive in its response, and that NHS Lanarkshire failed to maintain and secure public confidence around advice it gave to GPs for medical testing. Mistrust built over many years before coming to a head at a public meeting in June 2019.

Subject to the Council completing an independently verified remediation of the PCB issue as soon as possible, as well as further water sampling being carried out, the report supported the reopening of the campus on 12 August. It also recommended a number of measures to improve public confidence, including the creation of a Site Recovery Group involving all key stakeholders.

We noted in our previous update that the story had illustrated two points: first, the assessment and remediation of contamination through the planning process may come under renewed scrutiny at a later date; second, it can be a significant challenge for public authorities to allay fears around allegedly contaminated land, particularly where sensitive sites are concerned. In respect of the former, the review can be considered a success for those involved in the grant of planning of permission. As for the latter, the report offers a number of important lessons for public officials facing similar scenarios in the future. 

Text references paras 1-01 to 1-04; para. 21-01.

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