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A summer day’s walk through Old Roar Gill and Coronation Wood

Local residents have become increasingly worried about pollution in Old Roar Gill, as Richard Price discovered when he walked the stream down into Alexandra Park. Southern Water denies it, but Environment Agency testing points to it. Meanwhile Hastings Borough Council seems not to know what to do.

Gill or ghyll woodlands take the form of steep-sided valleys with a stream running through them. They are poorly understood and often poorly protected but are species-rich and have valuable microclimates.

Hastings has one — Old Roar Gill, which runs into Coronation Wood and thence into the Buckshole reservoir to the north of Alexandra Park. Old Roar Gill and Coronation Wood constitute a Local Nature Reserve (LNR).

The council’s website advertises the LNR thus: the “site has areas of open water, broadleaved woodland, fern and tall herbs. It has uncommon liverworts, mosses and lichens, together with rare and scarce invertebrates such as Rolph’s door snail and the Southern Yellow Splinter crane fly.”

On 18 July I met Myriam Lengliné of the campaign group Sewage Contamination in Alexandra Park and Old Roar Gill (SCG) and my old colleague Chris Hurrell to go for a walk along the ghyll stream and into Alexandra Park. Chris and I had been corresponding over various reports of pollution in the LNR and we wanted to see what the problem was.

We started the walk at some ponds at the very top of the hill above the ghyll stream and LNR.

Scum and an evil smell

In May, the ponds would have been full of life with tadpoles, dragonfly larvae and other species but a pollution incident had occurred, filling the water with scum and an evil smell. The waters were then drained into a pipe whose endpoint remains Southern Water’s secret. The ponds’ water level has remained low since then.

The campaign group never learnt why or who drained the pond but noticed water gushing out of a pipe half-way down the gill stream. They wondered whether or not the pond was connected to the pipe. The pond drains into the ghyll.

As we walked down the ghyll I noted that the stream banks had ferns and bryophytes, the type of vegetation that you would expect from a damp environment, but the stream itself was in a terrible state, blocked by rubbish and other debris and devoid of life. One likely reason is that the water has been polluted by sewage, which is what the campaign is seeking to prove.

Southern Water say that the stream was polluted in May but is now clean. However, the campaign group think that the stream has been polluted since 2010, though at some times it is worse than others. This is because their analysis of Environment Agency water quality test results further downstream shows that the stream has been polluted since data was collected. They say that the pollution is ongoing and that Southern Water are wrong to present it as a series of separate incidents, each of which gets resolved.

Leaky sewage pipe

Campaigners suspect that the source of pollution is a leaky sewage pipe which runs close to the gill stream in the LNR.

At a Cabinet meeting on 2 October, campaigners were given the chance to ask councillors questions. HBC are asking Southern Water to fund an ecological survey of the LNR. Myriam asked, “What happens if SW refuse to pay?” HBC leader Paul Barnett said that the council are unsure whether or not to push for one until the Environment Agency say that the problems have been resolved. However, the issues have been ongoing for years.

Answers to additional questions revealed that the council cannot compel Southern Water to replace the failing sewer in the LNR — but unanswered was the question of whether or not they will ask them to. HBC were asked if they would be implementing the actions laid out in their own Waterways Management Plan, which describes how Old Roar Gill and the downstream ponds should be treated to minimise pollution. There was no answer to this question either.

HBC still do not have baseline data that shows what should be tested for in the ghyll stream so as to determine whether or not it is safe for wildlife or people and their dogs. This is after 10 years of pollution and six months into the current incident(s). They say they are waiting for baseline figures from the Environment Agency.

As we walked along the stream Myriam collected litter and popped it into a bag whilst telling us of dogs becoming ill after drinking from the stream. We came across a dead badger lying alongside it. Myriam, who was visibly upset, said that it was the third one found within one hundred feet of each other since May.

The body of a dead badger beside Old Roar Gill.

She said that she had been told by a Southern Water representative that HBC had confirmed that the last one was roadkill; therefore, she said, “They must be doing post mortems.” I videoed her and the badger and hypothesised that it would be really difficult for this to be explained as roadkill as there are 25-feet high banks on either side.

A request under the Environmental Information Act for correspondence between Southern Water and HBC proved that HBC had not written to the water utility stating that one of the dead badgers had been roadkill. Myriam had been lied to.

Legal implications

Since our walk the council have become keen to engage with the public. Could there be legal implications if someone could prove that they or an animal became sick after coming into contact with the ghyll stream?

Polluted pond in Alexandra Park.

We came out of gill woodland and the LNR and walked to the first of two of the ponds in Alexandra Park. Its shallow water had a white translucent hue. It looked polluted, with no wildlife in it, although I did see a beautiful demoiselle on the vegetation. Miriam told me that the pond had become polluted during the incident back in May.

Just across from it is a much larger pond. There could be pipes connecting the two underneath the tarmac of the path. The part of the larger pond closest to the polluted pond had a large green algal bloom. At the far end of the pond were a group of mallards.

I thought to myself that the problem is that if biodiversity and freshwater ecology is not monitored, then ponds and streams can become polluted indefinitely without the public ever being aware. We carried on down through Alexandra Park to a sort of man-made overflow that was obviously polluted when you looked into it.

Myriam said that none of the group’s members trusted Southern Water because although they had seen and smelt pollution, they were told that the water was clean. They could not understand why the company’s tests were not showing pollution when the group could see and smell it. They wondered where they were testing, and what for.

Own tests

Dissatisfied with Southern Water’s claims, the campaign group commissioned their own water tests. On 21 July they received the results of their tests. These showed that the levels of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Streptococci – bacteria with potentially harmful and even lethal effects on animals and humans – were very much higher than the Environment Agency’s recommendations for bathing water!

Southern Water’s response is that it is acceptable for E. coli levels to be higher than the bathing water standards. When they responded to an email sent by the Clean Water Action Group on 24 July they wrote, “Natural watercourses often have concentration of up to 10,000 E. coli/100ml and above in the absence of human contamination. Old Gill Roar is a local nature reserve and has an abundance of wildlife which will all excrete bacteria.” SCG decided to take 10,000 as a threshold.

Southern Water test for nitrate and ammonia which can indicate manure or sewage pollution but does not pinpoint the cause, whereas the Environment Agency test for E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci (IE) which come from faecal matter.

The campaign group think that testing for E. coli and IE gives a better indication of water quality than testing for ammonia and nitrate. Ammonia and nitrate test results can be attributed to agriculture and other sources, whereas E. coli is proof of faecal matter and more likely to be indicative of sewage.

The campaign group believe that Southern Water are deliberately misleading the public when they state that the water is safe and is not polluted.

Should members of the public (the campaign group) have to pay for water quality testing to prove that the watercourses are polluted? Since they cannot trust Southern Water and the council refused to help, they felt they had no choice, despite the high expense.

What started as a beautiful summer day’s walk though one of Hastings wooded ghylls led us to conclude that all the urban streams in the Hastings area are polluted with sewage, as the Environment Agency data proves. HBC presumably have known for years but turn a blind eye by ignoring the water quality tests.

Expert opinion

What happened to the three dead badgers? On 30 October, as Hastings was recovering from flooding, I interviewed Simon Browning, monitoring technical lead at The Rivers Trust. I learnt that sewage often comes with a cocktail of chemicals that are much more harmful to wildlife than E. coli. Perhaps the badgers succumbed to it. Unfortunately, since the corpses were not autopsied, we will never know.

Simon confirmed that the group’s E. coli threshold of 10,000 cfu/mL is a reasonable basis for sounding the pollution alarm. The Environmental Agency data often exceed this level.

With regard to their data he said, “I’ve not seen values like the ones that you’re getting. They are consistently high and with such frequent testing. I would be interested to know if the Environment Agency or Southern Water are actually doing any work on trying to find the source. The public trust that if there’s an issue the water company will send out teams with video cameras to investigate.”

HBC knew of pollution in the ghyll stream of the LNR that they own and manage since 2017 but have done nothing. They ignored their own recommendations. Now it transpires that the problem is widespread – almost all of the watercourses in Hastings have high levels of E. coli.

Councillors appear powerless to get council officers to take it seriously. The local MP just sends the campaign group letters that appear to be based on Southern Water press releases.

This is a problem that is not going away anytime soon, but neither are campaigners. A Southern Water drop-in at the Stade Hall on 12 October was well attended by all campaign groups who demonstrated outside, many of whom then went inside to ask questions.

At the council’s Cabinet meeting on 6 November members of the campaign group asked why signs had not been posted in the LNR warning dog owners not to let their animals drink the gill water (they attempted to put up signs themselves in May but these were immediately torn down). Myriam told Paul Barnett, the leader of the council that the water was dangerous to the health of children and animals and that the group knew of the deaths of three dogs from seizures attributed by their owners to pollution in the Old Roar Gill stream.

The council’s response is that bylaws forbid dogs or people in the water of the ghyll stream. However, byelaws do not apply to people or dogs going in the water at Old Roar Gill and Coronation Wood LNR.

Are the council fearful of the legal implications of declaring the waters polluted? It would mean admitting that the waters have been polluted for years and they have failed to protect the public.

Test data point to pollution

The Environment Agency monitors water quality both at the West Confluence and the East Confluence close to the tennis courts in Alexandra Park.

The West Confluence is fed both by the gill stream, which flows close to the faulty sewage pipe in the Coronation Wood LNR, and Shornden stream. Test results at this point indicate that 6% of samples  – 15 out of 262 taken since 2012 – have exceeded an E. coli level of 10,000 no/100ml. A peak of 100,000 was recorded on 20 June 2019, while the highest recent reading was 14,000 on 14 July this year.

In the absence of specific guidance from either Southern Water or the Environment Agency, the SCG group have adopted 10,000 no/ml as the threshold above which the water can be said to be sufficiently polluted as to cause danger to dogs and/or wildlife.

The waters of the two confluences merge downstream of the testing points and flow into the sea. The Environment Agency began its test regime, taking samples every few weeks, when doubts arose about the bathing water quality at Pelham beach.

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Posted 17:43 Saturday, Nov 18, 2023 In: Environment

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