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Anglers’ group calls for ‘lessons to be learned’ after toxic spill kills fish in Fife river

River Eden toxic spill
Fish were killed by the toxic spill in the River Eden

An anglers’ club has told how years of hard work and investment was “wiped out” when a Scottish Water worker accidently leaked about 90 gallons of a toxic chemical into a Fife river.

The Scottish Government agency was this week fined £6,700 for pouring coagulant Zetag into the Eden near Cupar, killing off at least 500 salmon and trout. 

Dundee Sheriff Court heard that the fish died within hours, after the jelly-like substance – used in the water purification process – sucked oxygen out of the river.

Prosecutors said the accident was “entirely avoidable” and the effects of the spill could last for several years.

Now the Eden Angling Association, a non-profit group that works to promote, restore and conserve the river, has called for lessons to be learned to avoid a repeat of the 2018 accident.

Thousands of juvenile fish killed

River Eden toxic spill

Secretary and treasurer David Farmer said: “Words can never adequately express the feelings of our association members and the local community, when years of voluntary work invested to improve the river and it’s habitat are wiped out like this.”

He said: “Covid lockdowns have shown the importance of the river for physical and mental health wellbeing, not only for the angling association members but for the community who use the paths and stiles maintained by association members.”

Mr Farmer said that the incident may not have come to light had it not been for the “quick actions” of the public and the EAA. “The concern here is that as well as suffocating the obvious and countable salmon, sea trout and brown trout, the pollution event also killed off thousands of juvenile fry needed to maintain the future of the river, and of the association.”

Spill highlighted ‘deficiencies’

River Eden toxic spill
Dead fish in the River Eden at Cupar

The court heard on Monday that the spill happened when a forklift driver accidentally punctured a 1,000 litre container of Zetag, while attempting to move it out of storage.

The accident happened at the Cupar Waste Water Treatment Works. The worker managed to turn the container over to prevent further spillage, and an attempt was made to clean up the contamination by hosing and mopping into neaby surface water drains which discharge into the Eden.

The chemical also leaked from the site into the river at several locations.

Staff had not immediately realised that the chemical had been washed into the water, and they were unaware of the devastating impact that it would have on the wildlife.

A representative of Scottish Water told the court that about £200,000 was spent addressing the problem, to ensure it could not happen again.

Mr Farmer said: “It is good to see that justice has – finally – been seen to be done, and to highlight the deficiencies of this Scottish Government agency.

“But lessons also have to be seen to be learned so it never happens again.”

He said: “If Scottish Water were to work with the association to improve the river and its habitat for the benefit of all, that might go some way to improving their standing in the association and the community.”

Impact could last years

During its investigation, SEPA found there was a lack of knowledge among Scottish Water staff about the harmful effects of the chemical they were working with.

There was also a lack of training on chemical handling.

It is thought the spill could have an impact on salmon and trout numbers for up to five years.

Procurator Fiscal, Wildlife and Environment, Fiona Caldwell said: “This incident was brought to the attention of SEPA by members of the public, at which point the environmental damage was already done.

“It was entirely avoidable. Scottish Water failed to provide adequate training in relation to chemicals used, their handling or appropriate spill training.

“That failure, the resultant damage to the environment and the impact on the local community, is unacceptable.”

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