Rob Edwards Environment Editor
THE pollution of Scotland's beaches by sewage this summer was worse than last year, according to new figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
This contradicts widely-publicised claims by the Scottish Executive last week that bathing waters had "never been cleaner", and prompted accusations that ministers have been "massaging" statistics to obtain good headlines.
Over the last four months, Sepa has analysed more than 1100 samples from Scotland's 63 officially-designated bathing waters. The average level of faecal contamination in these samples provides the most accurate measure of overall sewage pollution. According to Sepa, this year's average faecal coliform count was 172, compared to 166 last year.
The worst polluted beach was Ettrick Bay on the Isle of Bute, which recorded an average faecal coliform count of 734 - more than four times the average for all beaches.
Other badly contaminated beaches were Pencil in Largs, Luss Bay on Loch Lomond, Irvine, and two beaches in Nairn. All of these bathing waters narrowly missed being officially recorded as "failures" this year because only one water sample exceeded the legal sewage limit. It normally requires two samples in excess of the limit to trigger a failure.
In the one case where there were two samples in breach of the limit - at Carnoustie in Angus - Sepa took an unprecedented decision to double the number of samples taken from 20 to 40.
Sepa said this "diluted" the two breaches so that bathing waters could be passed.
These factors allowed the Scottish Executive to assert that all Scotland's beaches had passed the legal limits for the first time. Yesterday, the deputy environment minister, Rhona Brankin, was pictured paddling for photographers. "Scotland's bathing waters have never been cleaner to swim in, " she said.
Green MSP Mark Ruskell said the Executive's claims ignored Sepa's findings. "This appears to be a clear attempt to gain positive headlines despite the facts, " he said.