Radioactive contamination at Dalgety Bay, caused by the disposal of WWII aircraft containing dials luminised with radium, has led to the first application of the radioactive contaminated land regulatory framework. Rob Bell reports.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has, so far, refrained from formally designating the site “contaminated land”, preferring to pursue a voluntary approach in partnership with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), identified by the regulator as responsible for the contamination. However, a full site investigation has been carried out and a report published, followed by an “Appropriate Persons” report setting out SEPA’s reasoning in naming the ministry responsible for the problem.

Monitoring and retrieval of radioactive particles at Dalgety Bay has been ongoing for some years, and the MoD has spent in excess of £825,000 on works at the site. However, SEPA has said the programme currently in place is insufficient to provide protection from the risks to human health the contamination presents, and negotiations to agree a path forward are under way.

Call for action

Local MP and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has kept up relentless pressure on the MoD to expedite full remediation of Dalgety Bay, most recently during a debate in the House of Commons on 9 July.

Mr Brown said: “In the next few months, the Ministry of Defence will have to make a decision, as SEPA will be bound to designate this area as the only radiation-contaminated area in the United Kingdom if action is not taken by the MoD as soon as possible.

“It is now time for the ministry to do the decent thing. It should own up, clean up the area, pick up the bill for that because it is the responsibility of the MoD, and it should hurry up, because the residents of Dalgety Bay should not have to undergo another winter when further coastal erosion causes more particles to appear, the health risks to be mentioned by residents, as they are now, and the damage to get worse. I urge the minister, even at this late stage, to accept responsibility and to get on with the clean-up of Dalgety Bay.”

In reply, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Dr Andrew Murrison conceded that “in all likelihood” the MoD’s historical activities introduced radium to Dalgety Bay, but said: “The question is whether there is significant risk of significant harm, and the extent to which the activities of those who controlled the land after the MoD impacted on the current situation.”

Dr Murrison said SEPA had been “less than helpful” and that the MoD’s technical and legal experts had reviewed the two reports and “identified issues relating to the adequacy and validity of both the risk assessments and the Appropriate Persons report… and concerns relating to the interpretation and use of fundamental scientific and legal principles”.

SEPA was unimpressed with the criticism. Executive Director Calum MacDonald says: “I was surprised and disappointed by Dr Murrison’s comment that SEPA has been less than helpful. “SEPA has worked with the MoD, in partnership, and with various stakeholders and the local community to reach this point in our efforts to tackle the radioactive contamination at Dalgety Bay, and as such the reports we have produced have mirrored the statutory process that would be invoked should the land be designated.”

A “big shame”

SEPA Radioactive Substances Specialist Dr Paul Dale says the regulator’s findings have been examined and confirmed by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE), which mirrored its conclusion that the ongoing monitoring and recovery works are not a suitable long-term solution.

He says: “If the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is not willing to accept our reports it needs to provide meaningful reasons — the MoD can’t just say it doesn’t like them without offering evidence we’re wrong.

“The Department has had both the risk assessment and Appropriate Persons reports for a couple of months, but to date we’ve been given no reason as to why they believe the findings are wrong. Either the MoD accepts it is responsible and does what’s appropriate to make the site safe, or we’ll need to use our powers [to formally designate the site as contaminated].”

This would be a “big shame” for SEPA, which has pursued a voluntary approach to the situation. COMARE has agreed the threshold under the radioactive contaminated land regulations has been exceeded, and there has been confirmation from Health Protection Scotland as well that this is the case.

“We’re a bit perplexed the MoD is continuing to insist it hasn’t [accepted that the threshold has been exceeded], as it’s not just SEPA as the regulator saying so, but also COMARE — an independent body — and a health protection organisation. It seems everybody is saying the same thing except for the Ministry of Defence.”

Moving forward

The wrangling over liability for remediation of Dalgety Bay looks set to continue, following a meeting between the MoD and SEPA on 26 July 2013. SEPA says discussions will continue, but that it remains confident in the conclusions of both its reports. The MoD committed to commissioning the final phase of the investigation plan, aimed at identification of long-term management and/or remediation options.

MacDonald says: “Both parties have agreed to meet again in September 2013 to review the options put forward. SEPA has committed to consider how best to engage with all interested parties moving forward.”

In the meantime, it is unclear whether other former military sites contain radium timebombs buried as part of the disposal of aircraft after WWII came to an end. For example, photographs have emerged of seaplanes being dismantled at the former RAF Wig Bay base. While this is no guarantee radium-contaminated dials were buried there (or that a pollutant link exists, meaning human health is at risk), the photos will make investigation of the site by Dumfries and Galloway Council as part of its statutory duties under Part 2A rather more of a priority.

Further information

All reports on Dalgety Bay can be accessed via the SEPA website.

Last reviewed 20 August 2013