Pollution in its many forms

During the past year the Solent Protection Society (SPS) has been investigating the impact of pollution on the Solent. This is a huge subject covering everything from shipping to plastic, sewerage to chemicals, noise to pleasure craft disturbance. We have looked particularly at how pollution gets into the Solent and what action is being taken by the various agencies involved. This has also meant looking at what comes down the rivers and out of the many outfall pipes that discharge into Solent waters.

Water Quality

We are all familiar with beach water quality monitoring by the Environment Agency (EA) which is the prime government body charged with checking water quality round our shores and in rivers. These reports, usually available weekly online (except in this Covid year where they started late and are monthly at present), are produced between May and September. The beaches are not monitored at other times and there are large stretches of the Solent where there are no designated bathing beaches; the western Solent for example. Here some monitoring is done by the EA but the results are usually contained in annual reports published retrospectively. They do however give a guide to trends. England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters are as polluted as they were four years ago, with only 16 per cent achieving good ecological status, according to government data published in September.

Drainage Systems

Combined Sewer Outfalls (CSOs) are largely part of the sewerage system controlled by Southern Water though some may be private. There are hundreds of these CSOs around
the Solent. Most of the drainage systems in the Solent area are combined systems, that is sewerage water and rainfall flow through the same pipe. Consequently when there is a
discharge, say during a storm or if there is a malfunction, then diluted sewerage comes straight into the river or sea causing pollution. As summer storms have increased, this has been happening more frequently and may on occasions breach the legal limits on the number of times this is allowed. Many of these outfalls are not monitored. Southern Water monitors the main ones and has to report on discharges which are picked up in annual reports by EA. We still await the Water Company Performance reports for 2019.

The main culprits are increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, with nitrates in particular enriching the water too much causing green algae blooms. These starve the water of oxygen with the inevitable knock on effect on marine life and plants. Not only does this pollution come from sewerage but even greater amounts come from current and historic fertilizer use on farmland and other sources, all of which eventually washes into watercourses. According to reports commissioned by the Solent area local authorities, the bulk of the nitrate content of the Solent waters comes from unspecified ‘coastal background sources’. While much of that background will be from natural sources, we suspect that a significant proportion is likely to emanate from the long sea outfalls which discharge into the Solent. In the case of Langstone Harbour, we understand that it takes eleven tidal cycles to completely flush and with the overall flow of water eastbound through the Solent relatively slow, much of the material dispersed from these outfalls will remain in Solent waters for many days, moving backwards and forwards as it slowly disperses on the tide.

Nitrate Neutrality

House building in the Solent area has been on hold for most of the year while councils look for ways to make new development ‘nutrient neutral’. Natural England produced guidance in June for how new developments could theoretically achieve “nitrate neutrality”. It does not, of course, do anything to improve an already bad situation but it is better than nothing.

We remain seriously concerned about the volume of new housing proposed. The direction set by the new white paper on Planning for the Future, currently under consultation, suggests that house building in the Solent area will both increase and accelerate. Without significant upgrades to the waste water treatment network and the adoption of sustainable drainage systems on new developments, the risk of unconsented storm discharges from outfalls will only increase.

Addressing the Nitrate Pollution Issue

There are a number of potential options identified this year.

  • Acquire farmland in a river catchment area and take lower lying fields out of agriculture and ‘re-wild’ it. This method has been championed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) who have already used a government loan to acquire a farm on the Island. This will be taken out of production to generate “nitrate credits” which HIWWT can sell on to developers to offset the nitrate produced by their development. The profit made will enable HIWWT to pay back the loan and generate funds for the charity.
  • Increase the capacity and efficiency of the wastewater treatment network, improving the capability for handling peak storm water discharge events.
  • Continue to improve farming methods to reduce nitrate runoff. Over recent decades the farming industry has made significant progress in improving the sustainable use of fertilisers on farms and it is likely that much of the farm sourced nitrate load entering the Solent is historical. The nitrates being released into the ground from agricultural land take years or decades to finally leach through into the watercourses.
  • Strengthen Planning policy to ensure that more areas are protected and that building of housing is more tightly controlled with infrastructure contributions increased to assist with the improvement of CSOs.
  • Increase the mud flats and sub-sea plants like sea grass which, along with oysters, are proven absorbers of marine pollution, by vigorously protecting and perhaps expanding the marine protected areas around the Solent coast.

This is an extremely complex issue both legally, environmentally and technically, and there are certainly no quick and/or simple solutions. Each of the above options will play a part, but more effort and investment is needed if we are to turn neutrality into a positive decline. Some of this will require further legislation by government and some of it will inevitably mean increased water bills.

The ‘rewilding’ of farmland to generate nitrate credits has already been used by Fareham and Havant Borough Councils to kick start new housing development and in September 2020, the UK government approved the investment of £3.9 million to set up a first-of-its-kind national online ‘nitrate trading’ auction platform. This is a worrying development since SPS believes that any mitigation actions for housing development around the Solent should be taken for the benefit of the local area.

While the objective of ‘re-wilding’ farmland is admirable, the benefits are unlikely to be seen in our lifetime. What we will see, however, is the impact of the additional development which the ‘nitrate credit’ approach will now permit. The problem for the Solent and its wildlife will get worse, not better, for the foreseeable future.

What actions can SPS take?

SPS has limited resources but we can continue to monitor the reports that are produced by the various agencies and apply pressure where we find objectives are not being met.

We can press for further legislation along with the many other specialist conservation groups who share the same goals.

We will try during the coming year to draw our monitoring into a form which illustrates the trends we find around our precious Solent.

The South Marine Plan in a wider context

David Attenborough recently brought the issue of the sustainability of marine resources to all our attention.  A Marine Plan is a framework document and a tangible step towards sustainable seas.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOver many years there have been increasing and multiple pressures in coastal waters from dredging, windfarms, communications cables, pipelines, bottom trawling, shipping, leisure activities and many other activities. Much of this activity was insufficiently regulated and often uncharted, with a lack of formal channels of communication between either authorities or perpetrators, and with little thought to sustainability. The associated infrastructure can blight our coastline if cooperation in good planning is lacking. The Solent in particular is under pressure from increased development, both marine and terrestrial.

Concern as to the sustainable use of natural resources worldwide, the decline of biodiversity, food security and climate change led to the ground breaking UN “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the Convention on Biological Diversity (also known as the Biodiversity Convention or CBD) was adopted. It entered into force in December 1993. The Biodiversity Convention, to which the UK was a Party, was the first global treaty to provide a legal framework for biodiversity and conservation. Part of this Convention laid the foundation for a worldwide process of Marine Planning to promote sustainable use of marine resources and to halt the decline in biodiversity. The UK commitment to the Biodiversity Convention marine initiative is embodied in the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009), Parts 1, 2 and 3 of which covers Marine Planning. The UK coastline was divided into tranches and an inshore and offshore Marine Plan was created in each tranche. The South Inshore Marine Plan, which covers the Solent area, became law on 17th July 2018.

Marine Plans are not development documents such as terrestrial Local Plans. They are policy documents. In respect of the South Marine Plan, stakeholders were invited to consultations and workshops to discuss the desired strength of each policy so that a sensible, effective and acceptable level of governance and management could be achieved. Comment on the policies and their local effects, as well as The Solent Protection Society’s role in the consultation process, is covered by another article in this newsletter. Geographically, the South Marine Plan area stretches for 1000 kilometres of coastline from Folkestone to the River Dart. It is one of the most complex and used areas of the English coastline. As elsewhere, there are separate offshore and inshore sections.

To understand the concept of the Marine Plan more clearly, it is worth examining the legislative steps from the “Rio” Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) to where we are today. There are many daughter conventions to the UN “Rio” Convention on Biodiversity (1992) and the more significant conventions relevant to Marine Planning include the OSPAR Convention (1998) which is the UN Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic under which authority the UK marine area falls, and also the more familiar UNCLOS (1982), the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Nineteen years after the “Rio” Convention, the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) created a new Agency within Defra called the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

The MMO operates as the competent marine planning authority on behalf of UK Government, delivering marine functions in English territorial waters. The MMO has overall responsibility for Marine Planning, Licensing, Environment, Marine Conservation Zones and Marine Protected Areas, Fisheries (offshore and inshore), and enforcement. It carries out these duties with advice from other appropriate government agencies, mainly within Defra, such as the Environment Agency or Natural England, depending on the relevant issue.

Confusion may arise between the United Nations initiative (UN OSPAR Convention etc.) behind Marine Planning, and European Directives (where transposed into UK law) which are used to enforce the actions of the MMO, for instance the use of the Habitats Directive (UK Habsregs 2010) to enforce Marine Conservation Zones.

Further confusion may have arisen in July 2018 when the South Marine Plan became law just as Defra was consulting on the designation of Marine Conservation Zones, two of which are in the Solent area, the subject of another article in the Newsletter.  To explain the relationship between the two issues, we have to return to the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) where, as already mentioned, Parts 1,2 and 3 deal with the creation of the MMO and Marine Planning, while Part 5 covers Nature Conservation. This Part 5 gives the ultimate responsibility for the enforcement of the Marine Conservation Zones to the MMO, although the advisory agency for the science behind MCZs lies elsewhere in Defra, namely Natural England. The MMO also has the mandate to create local regulations where habitats may be suffering damage, and when considered necessary.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) also gives responsibility to the MMO for all Marine Licensing between High Water and the extent of UK waters. There was a need to clarify and simplify marine licensing and the MMO has responsibility to speed up decisions and to introduce transparency into the system by publishing all marine licensing requests. Marine licensing applications can be found on the MMO website. The overlap with Local Authorities between HW and LW was a deliberate ploy to require Local Authorities and the MMO to cooperate in the tidal zone. Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) the MMO also holds ultimate responsibility for fisheries management and enforcement. Inshore Fishing Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) have been created to manage and enforce fisheries. At sea, IFCA vessels may assist other patrol boats with for enforcement on different issues, including the contravention of regulations regarding MCZs.

Part 9 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act concerns Coastal Access and the Coastal Path.
The South Marine Plan is the second Marine Plan to be created in English waters (the Eastern Marine Plan was the first), and its birth seems to have been long and complex. The initiative brings together the plethora of authorities and stakeholders for whom MMO has a duty to provide a “one stop shop” to coordinate the many authorities and demands on our waters.

There may be teething problems but the future of this initiative is encouraging.

New Hamble homes

NE Hamble, planning permission granted for 500 homes. The treated sewerage will now go into a brook running into the Hamble, however, the query has been raised regarding the potential failure of the proposed water treatment plant.  Botley Parish Council have requested Government intervention.

SPS will write to Botley PC to share their concerns and also to River Hamble Authority to ensure they have knowledge of this.


Green Blue gives balanced advice

Once again The Green Blue has teamed up with the Environment Agency to tackle diffuse pollution – this time encouraging boaters to think about how and where they discharge their black water.

In the Solent we have fast flowing tides, so their advice is relatively straightforward. For more information, click here

Shipping in Solent Waters

Posted on 01 Apr 2008

Single Hull Tankers

Your Council still strives to minimise the risk of oil pollution in the Solent by securing the agreement of the tankers owners and their cargo receivers not to transit the western Solent via the Needles in a laden condition. Coastal tankers, many only with single hulls, loaded with up to 7,000 of highly pollutant fuel oil often use this route.

The sensitivity of a grounded tanker was headline national news on 10th March when “Astrell” carrying about 10,000 tons of highly pollutant refined product ran aground off Bembridge in a storm, but tugs were about to refloat her without any oil spilt.

Shipping air emissions

With environmental issues high on the political agenda, we are pleased to note that emissions from ships are under increasing scrutiny from regulators and we are carefully watching the policies from ABP Southampton in this respect.

The International Maritime Organisation has made a significant announcement recently that ships trading worldwide must cut the sulphur content in their bunkers to 3.5% by 2012 and 0.5% by 2020 which is down from the present level of 4.5%. In designated Sulphur Emission Control Areas, emissions will have to be below 1% in 2010 and 0.1% five year later. These areas include the English Channel and therefore Solent waters which, of course, is good news for residents in the area.

The requirements are subject to the IMO board ratification in October 2008 and will require significant investment in desulphurisation capacity. As a guide, the IEA estimates ship-owners consumed 150 million tons of bunkers in 2005.

MSC NAPOLI – Solent Protection Society warns that a similar oil spill could happen in the Solent

Posted on 26 Jan 2007

Following the grounding of MSC Napoli off Branscombe Beach, the Solent Protection Society calls on all those responsible for bringing cargo vessels into the Solent to continue reviewing and tightening up safety standards.

The unfortunate grounding of MSC Napoli off Branscombe Beach in Devon and the subsequent leaking of oil from her tanks has caused severe environmental problems for the Jurassic Coast’s wildlife, harbours and beaches.

MSC Napoli flies the British flag and therefore it is expected that she would be subject to high safety and operational standards, but accidents and breakdowns will happen. Six years ago MSC Napoli, reportedly, was stranded in the Malacca Straights and subsequently had major dry-docking work in Viet Nam. Last week she lost engine power 40 miles off the Cornish coast and subsequently suffered major structural hull cracks in heavy seas. It is reported she could have already lost about 200 tons of heavy fuel oil from her engine room overboard and there still remains in excess of 3,000 tons of fuel in her bunker tank, which it is hoped can be trans-shipped before she starts to break up. In the meantime hundreds of sea birds have been polluted or died.

An oil spill in the Solent would have a devastating effect on the wildlife, harbours, beaches and businesses of the South Coast.

There are clear differences between shipping casualties in the open sea and the Solent. In the Solent we do not encounter such seas, but we can get heavy winds which will affect the high substructure of ever larger container carriers when they are operating with the wind on their beam, at slow speeds, in our navigating channels. An engine breakdown in this event could prove disastrous. As the volumes and sizes of vessels steadily increase, extra vigilance is essential.

The Solent Protection Society calls upon maritime safety agencies and operators of large container ships using the Solent to reassure the public that they are reviewing their operational safety standards in the light of the Branscombe Bay incident.