DOWNGRADING the waste water treatment in a Wester Ross community threatens its resurgent lifeline tourism trade and damages its growing status on the NC500 route.
The stark warning comes as pressure mounts on the Scottish Government to call in a decision by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) to allow Scottish Water to reduce UV treatment of waste water for seven months of the year.
Gairloch Community Council and Gairloch Area Development Ltd joined forces this week to appeal to Scottish ministers to overrule Sepa’s go-ahead, warning of the damage it will do to the village’s attempts "to showcase its unique attractions to a new market of often first-time visitors" lured by the appeal of the North Coast 500 route.
Alarmed activists believe increased investment in restaurants, hotels and visitor attractions from businesses buoyed by the success of the route could be hit.
Meanwhile local MP Ian Blackford has written to environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham asking her to review proposals to reduce the level of year-round waste water treatment in Gairloch.
Sepa granted permission for Scottish Water to reduce UV treatment of waste water for seven months of the year, reverting instead to a settlement tank before pumping waste out into the loch.
It’s feared that will lead to a degradation of water quality, with sewage and bacteria polluting clean waters and beaches boasting Blue Flag status under the European Bathing Waters Directive for cleanliness.
Mr Blackford said: "I was surprised and shocked to learn of these proposals to downgrade the treatment of waste water in Gairloch for several months of the year.
"This is an area of outstanding natural beauty with the cleanliness of the beaches and marine environment highly prized by locals and visitors.
"Many local businesses are based around water sports which depend on clean, unpolluted water and beaches. People also bathe in these waters all year round. They have expressed great concern that sewage and bacteria released virtually untreated will have a lasting effect and still be present even in the months when full water treatment is restored.
"They predict that this will not only lead to a potential reduction in tourism and damage to the economy in an already fragile area, but also impact on local people, such as the schoolchildren who regularly carry out ‘litter picks’ to keep the beaches clean.
"If harmful bacteria from sewage becomes an issue this may have to stop, resulting in a further downgrade to the environment.
"Clearly any reduction in water quality is just not acceptable at a time when the cleanliness of our seas and beaches are becoming a major issue worldwide. We should not be taking a step backwards from the excellence which has already been achieved in Gairloch."
Sepa has said "appropriate protection" will still be in place while Scottish Water has said it is still exploring possibilities that would "increase the summer treatment window further". The possibility of a small wind turbine being installed to offset energy costs associated with ultra-violet sterilisation treatment is being explored, it said.
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