The Scottish government has announced that a school site in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire is to be tested for contamination: see ENDS Report 5 July 2019.
The announcement follows ongoing public concern about the site, which includes a campus opened in 2012 for two schools: St Ambrose High and Buchanan High. The site had previously been used for domestic waste landfill for around 30 years until the mid-1970s, as well as for waste from a nearby iron and steel works for an unknown period of time.
The concerns relate to a number of developments: blue-tinted water – with higher than permitted copper levels – was found to be coming from pipes; four current or former staff members at Buchanan High were diagnosed with bladder cancer; and parents have reported greater than usual sickness among their children, including one pupil who is said to have lost his sight and to have had abnormal levels of arsenic in his blood. A petition started in June 2019, calling for an independent investigation and for all pupils and staff members to be tested for contaminants, has collected over 16,000 signatures. Several teachers took part in a week-long strike in late June.
The Scottish government’s announcement follows attempts by North Lanarkshire Council to reassure parents, staff and the wider public, include through the publication of an information sheet in June 2019. This explained that the possibility of contamination was investigated prior to and following the grant of planning permission for the site. Investigations included ground and water risk assessments, an environmental specification report, and a remediation validation report in line with planning conditions – all easily accessible online. The Council noted that a number of issues were discovered during the investigation process, including the potential for ground gases. This led to the installation of a gas resistant membrane and an automatic monitoring and ventilation system. Lead hotspots were also identified: two were found to be sufficiently low not to cause concern, and three were covered with enough material to remove any pathway to pupils, staff and other site users. Phytotoxic contaminants – affecting plants – were dealt with by adding a layer of clean soil to planted areas, and asbestos found in two parts of the site was removed.
The Council also sought in the information sheet to dispel a number of myths. It explained that blue water is caused by corrosion in internal copper pipes, not by the site itself, and is usually dealt with by regular flushing. After blue water began to appear more frequently at the site and at higher levels than permitted under drinking water standards, the Council decided to replace all drinking water pipes with plastic. In the meantime, it provided bottled water for drinking in both schools. Most of the work had been completed by June 2019 and, since December 2018, tests have met water quality standards.
The NHS Lanarkshire Department of Public Health has also carried out an investigation in relation to public health concerns. This did not find any evidence of an increased health risk associated with attending Buchanan High or St Ambrose High. The school buildings have only been occupied for seven years, less than the time it would take to develop bladder cancer after exposure to the relevant toxin. As for blue water, while consuming excessive amounts of copper can lead to stomach upsets, copper from drinking water does not cause cancer. No toxic arsenic had been found among pupils or staff, and the presence of non-toxic arsenic is a natural occurrence and said to be unrelated to attendance at the Coatbridge site.
These efforts to reassure the public were unsuccessful. The Scottish government therefore decided to set up an independent review, led by the Chief Planning Reporter (formerly the most senior lawyer in the Scottish government’s legal service) and a former Director of Public Health. Its initial scope was to review NHS Lanarkshire’s conclusions, assess the available information on public health concerns, and review the risk assessments and validation of works at the site. The intention is to report before the school reopens on 12 August.
The 4 July announcement shows that the review team is now seeking additional evidence. Environmental testing, undertaken in conjunction with SEPA and other environmental health bodies, will include soil, water and the integrity of the gas resistant membrane. Water testing will be carried out by Scottish Water.
It remains to be seen whether there is in fact a possibility of contamination at the Coatbridge site, contrary to the conclusions of North Lanarkshire Council. In any event, the story to date illustrates two points. First, the assessment and remediation of contamination through the planning process may come under renewed and additional 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, such as schools, are concerned.
Text references paras 1-01 to 1-04; para. 21-01.