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Sand, sea and sewage, not this summer but in 1990

Aug 20, 2023

Smelly pollution is nothing new on Britain’s beaches

The headline – ‘Sand, Sea and Sewage’ – could be today’s, but it’s actually from The Observer’s 27 May 1990 deep dive into the sorry state of our seashores. It started with a field trip to the Lancastrian coastline, home to rich natural history and buzzing beach resorts, but also only one beach that reached the minimum standard for sewage bacteria. ‘We do guided shore walks in Morecambe Bay,’ recounted local marine biologist Dr Mark Woombs as he showed the journalist round. ‘And occasionally someone runs up with what they think is a rare plant species, a small, round, green object… Unfortunately, I have to tell them what it actually is – a decomposed turd.’

The malodorous, stomach-churning dossier provided a beach-by-beach brownlist to placesbeaches across the UK that failed the basic EC bathing water standard, complete with grim photos of mystery mud, swirling sanitary towels and pungent descriptions.

‘Children come here to learn the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable matter,’ said Woombs. ‘Instead, every time one of them comes back holding a condom.’

Lots of it feels familiar.

Gallons of raw sewage pumped into bathing waters, marine ecology under threat, health risks to bathers, windsurfers with stomach cramps and sore throats, and a government accused of failing to act to protect citizens. The ‘recently privatised water companies’ (how great is that decision looking 33 years later?) seemed disinclined to take action. They were, the article explains, relying on earlier scientific assessments that there was ‘no definitive proof that dumping raw sewage at sea created a human health risk.’ A spokesman for the association representing 10 privatised water companies claimed they were ‘100 per cent behind cleaner beaches and rivers’.

How is Morecambe Bay faring now? Local Labour MP Cat Smith demanded action on sewage dumping there in June, and local water company, United Utilities, currently tops Surfers Against Sewage’s ‘Top of the Poops’ sewage discharge ranking . Hopefully it won’t take another 33 years to clean up our coastal act.