SEPA probe after valley burn’s appearance is coloured by spillage

Gamescleuch Burn
Gamescleuch Burn

A pollutant spill which temporarily turned the Gamescleuch Burn in the Ettrick Valley a bright viridian, alarming residents living nearby, is being investigated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

The pollutant urea, which turned the tributary of the Ettrick Water and subsequently the Tweed an opaque blue-green on Monday, was photographed by a Gamescleuch householder whose garden backs onto the stream.

Retired farmer Brian Russell told TheSouthern: “It lasted for a couple of hours on Monday afternoon. I’ve seen pollution, but never anything like that on that scale. And we’ve no idea whether it’s toxic or not.”

In a statement, SEPA communication manager Malcolm McCurrach said: “We received a public complaint on Monday regarding a pollution incident on the Gamescleuch Burn, near Ettrick. Officers from our local team attended and noticed the burn was opaque blue/green in colour and affected by silt. The source has been traced to forestry operations that are upstream of Gamescleuch.

“A sample was taken of the Gamescleuch Burn and we are carrying out an ecological survey. SEPA has been in contact with the forestry operators and is carrying out further investigations to assess the environmental impact.

“At this stage, the discolouration appears to relate to a combination of silt run-off and a spill of urea.”

The Forestry Commission’s operations manager for southern Scotland, Neil Murray, confirmed that the leak occurred on Forestry Commission land upstream in Gamescleuch Wood, on a site where trees are being felled by timber merchant James Jones & Sons.

He told us: “The site is being worked by a ‘standing sale merchant’: they’ve got responsibility for everything that goes on on site, but the Forestry Commission monitors the work. The contractor is investigating how the incident happened.

“Foresters use a dilute solution of urea to spray onto cut stumps to prevent a fungus infecting the next rotation crop. It’s a nitrate: the same as farmers spray as a fertiliser on their fields. A strong blue-green dye is added so we can make sure contractors are applying the urea.

“I’m told not a lot was released – a little dye can go a long way. But that’s not to say we want it to get in the water.”

Mr Russell said: “However harmful urea is, you can’t convince me that isn’t pollution. If we weren’t there to see it, it would have been gone, and nobody would have known about it.

“Obviously, whoever was in charge wasn’t doing their job, and people aren’t abiding by the rules – or policing them. This needs advertising, not covered up.”

SEPA confirmed: “We are awaiting a report back from the forestry operators who are on site dealing with the situation. SEPA will be assessing the environmental data, and the report from the operators, and will determine what action will be required to ensure that appropriate mitigation measures are put in place.”