For the birds: Brexit’s latest shock, a toxic threat to our water system

A yellowhammer alights on a twig
Above: the yellowhammer bird, chosen – as a joke? – for the name of the government’s no-deal Brexit planning report in 2019.
Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay

The song of the yellowhammer, that attractive hedgerow bird, is often described as sounding like: “A little bit of bread and no cheese”.  So when the name “Operation Yellowhammer” was chosen in 2019 for the government’s contingency plans in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it was widely assumed it had been assigned by a civil servant with a dark sense of humour. 

Brexit reality: no laughing matter

Of course, the conclusions of the report – which starkly laid out the guidelines for dealing with what was termed a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ – were no laughing matter, but were rapidly buried under a tide of Tory denials and obfuscation. Meanwhile, any attempts at truthful reporting by the media, opposition MPs, or individual citizens were drowned out by cries of “Project Fear!”, the Brexiters’ favourite dismissive slogan. Amongst these was the extraordinarily vague (under)statement by the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove.

Now, two years later and just a few months after the Brexit transition period ended (special mention again goes to Michael Gove, who ignored expert advice and dismissed the EU’s offer to extend the transition period last summer in light of the Covid pandemic), many of the worst-case scenarios identified in the Operation Yellowhammer report are already turning out to be all too real.

Another toxic shock uncovered

And alongside the obvious effects of Brexit reality that we are all now experiencing: empty supermarket shelves, rapidly rising prices, the collapse of local businesses, and 1970s-style queues at petrol stations, are other, less visible, but equally alarming downsides, as we discovered when researching a follow-up article in our Toxic Shock series.  Alerted by the breaking story about the Environment Agency’s decision to temporarily reduce the required dosage of chemicals used to treat wastewater as a way to combat supply chain issues caused by Brexit, we investigated further. 

Concern is focused on a particular chemical, ferric sulphate, which is added in treatment plants to remove the phosphates and nitrates in wastewater. This also helps reduce impurity levels in water courses. A build-up of nutrients from sewage and agriculture reduces dissolved levels of oxygen in water, resulting in it becoming contaminated. This kind of pollution can lead to all sorts of environmental catastrophes, like algal blooms on coastlines and fish deaths. 

Water industry warnings about shortages

For some weeks, the water industry has been warning the government about a looming shortage of ferric sulphate due to distribution and supply chain issues. The big risk is the discharge of untreated sewage into waterways.

Pipes inside a sewerage system
Inside a sewerage system: ferric sulphate, added to wastewater, helps reduce levels of harmful nutrients in water courses.
Photo credit: Bernhard Kuehholzer at Pixabay.

So why the shortage?  Yellowhammer had concluded in 2019 that one consequence of Brexit might be that “critical elements of the food supply chain (such as ingredients, chemicals and packaging) may be in short supply”.  It appears as though this prediction was only too accurate.  An existing shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) delivery drivers pre-2019 has turned into a major crisis under the twin hammer blows of the pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period

There is a shortage of HGV drivers…and an even greater shortage of those specially trained to transport potentially dangerous chemicals

“Significantly exacerbated by Brexit”

The Chemical Business Association (CBA) says: “The UK’s position has been significantly exacerbated by Brexit. European drivers have returned to their home countries in large numbers and Covid-19 has meant the driver training and testing did not take place for over 12 months.”  The CBA points to a “dramatic” fall in the number of HGV drivers, from 304,000 in March 2020 to 256,000 by March 2021, based on Office National Statistics (ONS) data.

The decline included a loss of 14,000 EU drivers and 31,000 who were UK-based.  It has become particularly acute for the UK chemical supply chain, because HGV drivers must hold a further ADR qualification, required for transporting dangerous goods. 

Post-Brexit UK not attractive to EU drivers

Even with a relaxation of Covid restrictions and the latest Johnson U-turn on issuing temporary foreign work visas for HGV drivers, most EU drivers are unwilling to return to the UK.  Demand for drivers is strong on the mainland of Europe, and they can expect better pay and conditions there.

Plus there’s now the hassle of increased post-Brexit border bureaucracy to deter many – not least those who spent last Christmas stuck in a massive jam of lorries at Dover in freezing temperatures.  Drivers are often paid by the mile or kilometre rather than by the hour, so serious delays cost them serious money. Added to all these disincentives is the ongoing post-Brexit decline in the value of the Pound against the Euro, along with new tax changes that make it much less attractive for drivers from elsewhere in Europe to work in the UK.  

Short-term measures won’t stop long-term pollution problems

In the face of the crisis and pleas from transport industry bodies to include truck drivers in the special visa scheme for shortage occupations, the Government had initially refused to budge. Instead their first response was to relax drivers’ hours. The CBA described this as “inadequate and inappropriate”, as many drivers were already working long hours.

Since then, ministers have announced a raft of measures including a fast-track approach to driver examinations and increased funding for training, along with new lorry parks.  In addition to safety concerns about these knee-jerk temporary measures, they are unlikely to bring any relief to an already beleaguered chemical and water industry in the foreseeable future.

An outflow pipe spews water onto a beach.
An outflow into the sea: this is usually from storm drains, but contamination with sewage can occur. Photo credit: Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Serious consequences for wildlife

In fact, the shortage of ferric sulphate has created such a serious situation for the water industry that the Environment Agency has officially authorised a temporary reduction in the dosage used to treat wastewater. This in turn could lead to more discharges of untreated sewage, further threatening the health of waterways. The Agency stated that relaxation of the rules would last until December 31 “unless we extend it”.

Industry insiders have told us that this is not a threat to public health. However, it may have serious adverse consequences for wildlife.

Industry body Water UK reassures us that water quality will not be affected and that “primary and secondary treatment of sewage – which removes solids and organic matter – will continue as before.

A government spokesman told the BBC that the Environment Agency’s action was “time-limited and there are robust conditions in place to mitigate risks to the environment”, and that “the most sensitive and high-risk watercourses will not be affected”. 

“Project Fear” is Project Here

But while Water UK says no company has yet “made use of” this relaxation of the rules, it seems inevitable that many will.

And with no end in sight to the logistics logjam, the Conservative government denials continue, but are now being countered by a new slogan, one that is increasingly being uttered by longtime Remainers and former Leavers alike: “Project Fear is Project Here”. 

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