Anti-pollution operations in the Almond, 1875

type: Environment - water pollution

The Glasgow Herald
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AMONG current problems of social economics there is none perhaps which more urgently calls for solution than that of the purification of our streams. Apart from considerations of amenity, sufficiently weighty in their way, the practical evils arising from river pollution are acknowledged, even by those to whom they do not immediately come home while the feasibility, no less than the desirableness, of something being done to cure them is also of matter of general agreement.

On the other hand , there are few questions more hampered with complicated difficulties in the shape of vested rights and' public interests which none would like to compromise. In these circumstances, and with a Government so chary as the present of giving offence to anybody , we may yet have some 'time to wait for effective legislation on the subject but pending that much-wished-for consummation, it is satisfactory to know that, in Scotland at any rate, the existing law is by no means destitute of remedial efficacy. Of late years the matter has been fairly put to the proof in reference to more than one important river and, though it can hardly be said that anywhere complete success has yet been achieved, it does appear that, at least in one instance, something very like that result ia now almost within reach. The case referred to is that of the Almond, which, after having run for many years in a state of deplorable pollution, has now been so far improved as to raise hopes of its ultimate restoration to comparative purity. As showing what may lie done, without legislative assistance, by persistent and well-directed effort, it may not be uninteresting to describe the course of action which has here been pursued.

Rising in the Lanarkshire hills, and forming along the greater part of its course to the Firth of Forth the boundary between Mid-Lothian and Linlithgowshire, the Almond is fairly entitled in respect of the scenery fringing its banks, to rank with the most attractive of our lowland rivers . From the east side it receives three tributaries—the Breich Water from the Gladsmuir Hills, and the Brox Burn from the moorlands about Cobbinshaw, both of which pass near West Calder and fall in, the former about two miles above, and the latter immediately below, the village of Livingstone and the Linhouse Burn, which drains the hills in the neighbourhood of Crosswood and debouches at Mid Calder. On the west tlie only considerable affluent is the Brox Burn, which issues from the high ground to the east of Bathgate, and, flowing past the village which has taken its name, enters the Almond not far from Kirkliston.

At one time the Almond and its tributaries especially the Breich and Linhouse—were well known to anglers as abounding in excellent trout, and affording rare facilities for the exercise of the gentle craft. A good many years have, however, elapsed since the fishing was observed to fall off; and we believe that some thirteen or fourteen years ago it may he said to have virtually ceased, except in the extreme upper reaches. Simultaneously with this deterioration, people resident on the banks became ? that the streams had acquired an offensive smell and taste, rendering them unfit not only for domestic use, hut even for the washing of sheep or the watering of cattle. The causes wore not far to seek. In addition to extensive ironstone pits, which had long been in operation on the upper Breich, and whole drainage, charged with red oxide, must have been surely, if slowly, exercising a dulefceriovia influence, there had more recently been established a number of shale-oil works, whose refuse, discharged more or less copiously into all the tributary streams, had brought the evil to a well-nigh intolerable climax.

Alike to sight and to smell it was patent that in the new paraffin industry lay the chief source of pollution; but in order to put the matter beyond doubt, the proprietors of the district sought the assistance of a scientific expert. Accordingly, in 18?5 a report was obtained from Professor ?, in which it was stated, as the result of careful Investigation that, notwithstanding the existence of a cotton mill at the village of Blackburn, the Almond as far down as Stephen's Bridge was in a satisfactory state, and still fairly stocked with fish; but that from the Breich, Linhouse Burn, and Brox Burn trout had disappeared about three years before, while their waters had contaminated the main river as to render it utterly repulsive and useless to man or beast.

As to the character of the polluting matter, 'it was shown that in the distillation of shaleoil there was evolved, in the first instance, a large quantity of water strongly charged with ammonia, and, at a later stage of the process, two varieties of tar, than which nothing more calculated to poison a running stream could well be imagined . These waste products were known to be capable of utilisation. The ammoniacal water , for example, could be converted, into sulphate of ammonia at a profit of something like £ 10- a ton, while the tar had also in certain cases, been advantageously disposed of. Nevertheless, a sufficient quantity of such matters, combined with leakage from oil pipes, and other miscellaneous waste, was allowed to find its way into the rivers to produce the pernicious consequences above described.

Under these circumstances, the landowners whose property, was deteriorated, would seem to have acted with considerable forbearance. When, however, after the lapse of several years, it was seen that precautionary measures were either neglected altogether or but tardily and partially adopted , they resolved to try the effects of legal compulsion. The first case taken in hand, under the professional conduct ot Messrs Waddell & M'lntosh , W.S., with that of the Uphall Mineral Oil Company, who were held responsible for polluting the Brox Burn. Towards the close of 1872, an action of declarator and interdict was raised by Mr Hog ot Newliston, with the view of stimulating the company to still greater care in the disposal of waste than they had already shown of their own accord. The case could not be considered a bad one. Everything had been done that science and skill could suggest to use up such products as could be turned to profitable account. Ammoniacal water was converted into sulphat ; tar partly manufactured into lubricating grease, partly rendered available as fuel in the furnaces of the works . Still there came from the works a heavy discharge of water contaminated with oil and other matters and, notwithstanding well-meant attempts to separate these impurities, enough remained to occasion serious ? burn.

When the case came into Court, the defenders virtually admitted that their precautions were not perfect and a remit was made to Mr John Pattinson , engineer and consulting chemist, to report 'whether, and if so how, the operations at Uphall could be inoffensively conducted. The question resolved itself into one of preventing polluted water from entering the stream, for it had been found that even after every trace of oil had apparently been separated the drainage remained strongly charged with deleterious matter. Evaporation seemed the only effectual resource and while this method had already been partially resorted to in running waste water upon the spent shale heaps, trhe reporter recommended its more extended application in the numerous hues and ashpits of the works. On the part of the company, the makeshift expedient was at first suggested of turning a portion of the drainage into an old shale pit but this was seen to be of only temporary avail and accordingly their efforts were directed, on the one hand, to diminish the quantity of polluted water produced and on the other, to completely dispose of the same within the works themselves. In both directions they seem to have been completely successful.

From a final report by Mr Pattinson, dated October of last year, it appears that there had been provided an elaborate series of appliances in the shape of drains and tanks for intercepting and storing the waste water, with pumps and distributing pipes for sending it back to the works to be fed into steam boilers or evaporated in ash-pits or furnace flues, or squirted over trucks of red-hot shale. Even flood water drainage seemed to be adequately provided for, the intercepting works being capable of coping with anything short of such an extraordinary flood as would ? any possible escape of polluting matter into utter insignifigance. On the whole, the reporter had satisfied himself from actual examination that the bum below Uphall was perfectly free from all taste or smell of paraffin prodiicts, and had received assurances from persons resident on its banks that the water was once more freely drunk, and that without injurious effects, by horses and cattle. Meanwhile proceedings had been taken against the proprietors of the oilworks which were understood to be polluting the upper tributaries of the Almond.

In March 1874 Sir ? Gibson Maitland of Cliftonhall and Mr Archibald Ogilvie of Old Liston raised an action against the Oakbank Oil Company (Limited), craving that they be interdicted from discharging offensive matter into the Linhouse Burn. The defenders, while urging that from time immemorial the Almond had been dedicated to the reception of manufacturing impurities, submitted that they used the most approved appliances to render their own drainage as inoffensive as possible. A remit was, however, made to Mr George Robertson, C .B ., and Professor Crum Brown, to look into the matter, and from their report it appeared that, as in the case of Uphall, the ammonia water and both kinds of tar were duly utilised, but that a considerable quantity of water contaminated through use in the works was allowed to escape into the burn. It was found that the company were in course of constructing a large pond in which all drainage should be caught , and from which it should be pumped for redistribution through the works; and this arrangement, with the subsequent addition of a second pond, to be used when the first required cleaning, the erection of a well-puddled retaining wall between the works and the burn, and the stopping up of a certain suspicious drain, was pronounced by the reporters, so recently as last summer, to be thoroughly effectual for securing the object in view.

The stream, on the occasion of their last visit, was running very low, and while the stones were freely covered with the green vegetation to be expected in such circumstances, the water was found to be free from pollution. So far as wo have been able to learn, this satisfactory state of matters still continues. Passing along by the margin of the works and waste shale heaps, one cannot observe any escape of objectionable drainage; nor is there anything in the taste, smell, or appearance of the burn to forbid the hope that better days, for the angler are here in store.

A more difficult problem than either of those above mentioned presented itself in the case of Young's Paraffin Company, whose extensive works at AddieweII were known to be polluting the Breich Water on the one hand, and tha Killin Burn on the other. Owing to the great extent of the operations here carried on, the quantity of waste products to be disposed of was very large, and in particular, the volume of polluted water was such as it seemed well nigh hopeless to get rid of by evaporation. Indeed, it was evident from the first that this was a case for strenuous effort on the one side, aud the utmost possible forbearance on the other.

A proposal of declarator and interdict, commenced in March of last year at the instance; of Mr John Wilson of Alderstone and others, led, as in the other cases, to a remit to men of skill to report on the actual condition of the works. It appeared, that at this time, while the ammonia produced in the works was properly recovered, and steps had just been completed for turning all the tar to account, the defenders were in course of making arrangements to purity, if possible, their immense discharge of polluted water. The system of separators and filters proposed for this purpose was admitted by Professor Brown to be capable of removing most of the oil held in suspension, but was pronounced inadequate to deal with dissolved impurities.

On the whole the opinion was indicated that the precautions taken, while greatly diminishing, would not entirely prevent the contamination of the burns while, on the other hand, the question was suggested whether the daily discharge into the Breich of half a million gallons of Cobbinshaw water might not he held to benefit the stream more than any pollution that escaped the filters could damage it. Neither the pursuers nor the Court were, however, disposed to answer this question in the affirmitive and accordingly a further examination of works was ordered in the beginning of the present year, as the result of which considerable improvement was reported. It now appeared that the tar had entirely ceased to be a nuisance but that the mode of dealing with certain soda washings was unsatisfactory, and that theprocess of filtration still failed to secure perfect purity in the outflow.

Evaporation was pointed to as the only really effective remedy, and to this the defenders, notwithstanding the heavy expense they had incurred for filter beds, had now begun to turn attention. On a third inspection in ? it was found that further progress had been made in the right direction. The soda washings were now evaporated and the soda recovered, while the waste heat of furnaces had been brought to bear in evaporating polluted water, and ? ? furnaces had been specially constructed, for dealing at once with water and tar. At the same time a pond had been formed into which all the drainage of the works was led, and from which the water was pumped to be again used or evaporated, a constant circulation being maintained by the inflow of a fresh supply from Cobbinshaw. As matters now stand, the only water allowed to escape into the Breich is said to be that used for cooling the candle machines and the drums in which paraffin is crystallised, together with a certain amount of external drainage, ? lately the point of outflow, we found this water, of which there is a considerable volume, quite free to all appearance from any trace of parallin, but smelling slightly, and tasting unmistakably, of ordinary smoke or soot.

The only other discharge from the works is that carried from the opposite side into the ?onghill or Killin Burn, ? tainted with paraffin impurity, but ' owing to tin changes recently made within the works, this seems to have entirely disappeared. The water now running in it, stated ? that pumped from a shale pit, looks harmless enough, and only on tasting it does one discover that it still contains some tiave of metallic impurity. As the general result of the proceedings in this case, the pursuers admit that very great improvement has been affected in the discharge at both outlets. They still, however, contend that the quality of the water sent into the burns is not quite satisfactory and we understand that a minute to ? has been lodged for the consideration of the Court.

A short distance, below Addiewell, the Killin Burn passes the works of the West Calder Oil Company, for ? drainage it formed the moat ? convenient outlet. Here, again, proceed in a commence March 18th have led to the most material improvements. When the case came to be investigated, it was found that the main cause of pollution was, as usual, the discharge of contaminated water, steps being taken, as in other works, to utilise the tar aixl antinoma. The remedial measures resorted to are substantially similar to those already described—the interception of all water that has been used in the establishment, and the disposal of it by evaporation or otherwise, so that no portion shall enter the ?. At tho point where the works abut upon the stream, a substantial puddled wall has been built along the bank to preveut leakage. Some distance lower down there is still an outflow ot strongly-tainted water, but this is to be impounded in a large reservoir now in course of construction, and from which the most satisfactory results are anticipated.

Another manufactory against which it was thought necessary to take action was that of the Seafield Peat Fuel Company, who, dealing as they did with the acid tar obtained from the neighbouring oil works, were alleged to have sent polluting matter into a small burn debouching nearly opposite the Breich In this case interim interdict was granted, and a proof had been ordered with reference to the question of fact, when the suspension of operations at the defenders' works rendered further proceedings unnecessary.

The Scotsman, 29th October 1875