To promote the minimisation of pollution threats to land, water and air
What is pollution?

Pollution is the introduction by man directly or indirectly of substances into the environment which result in harmful effects on humans, plants and animals. Pollution can take many forms including airborne particles and gases, toxic chemicals introduced to land and water, nutrient enrichment of waterways, oil spills, radioactivity, noise and light pollution, and litter.

Air pollution

The rural and island nature of Orkney means that we are heavily reliant on car travel plus internal and external ferry and aeroplane transport links. The fossil-based fuels used for these means of transport contribute to the existing heavy atmospheric carbon dioxide load, which has been closely linked to global warming and climate change (click here for Greenpeace Climate Change page). Pollution from the Flotta oil terminal flame is closely monitored and controlled by the regulatory body the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

Toxic chemicals

Aquaculture and agricultural activities require the use of many toxic chemicals. These substances are now under much more rigid control than in the past, many such as DDT being no longer available. Organic methods of food production are on the increase due to public demand and encouragement from agencies such as SERAD with financial incentives. ECO supports all methods of organic food production. SEPA regulates all fish farm activities, although there are concerns that this does not afford adequate protection of the marine environment. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 Part IIA places a new duty on local authorities to inspect their areas for Contaminated Land.

Nutrient enrichment

Nutrient enrichment pollution of waterways occurs where nutrient inputs exceed the amount used by normal plant growth. The main pollutants that cause damage are phosphates and nitrates, mainly from sewage, farming effluent and agricultural run-off. Enrichment unbalances the ecosystem and can allow opportunistic species to dominate, thereby reducing biodiversity and in some cases leading to toxic algal blooms. Sources of such pollution come from run-off from farms after application of artificial nitrogen-based fertilisers and slurry. Slurry effluent, if it is allowed to leak into waterways, can have harmful effects, as can discharges from the food and drink industry, sewage effluent and excess food from fish farms.

SEPA controls and monitors such activities, and a licence is required before any effluent is discharged into the environment. SEPA also enforces environmental laws and regulations and has the power to prosecute anyone who pollutes the aquatic environment. Despite these measures there are still many lochs and burns in Orkney that are subject to pollution, including Harray, Stenness and Clumly Lochs and Mill Dam of Rango. Here the nutrient enrichment has caused algal blooms that have impacted on the native aquatic flora and the associated insect and fish populations, resulting in an overall reduction in the biodiversity. Highland Park and Crantit Dairy have taken steps to clean up their activities, and the Orkney Brewery filter their effluent through reed beds resulting in an environmentally-benign liquid being discharged into Harray Loch.

The major problem of diffuse pollution from agricultural areas remains. This area is hard to regulate and the current system of protection comes in the form of good practice guidelines issued by SEPA. Agri-environment schemes need to be devised to address these problems. ECO supports all measures that are taken to reduce nutrient pollution in the aquatic environment.

Oil pollution

Orkney, like any other beautiful area which has escaped urbanisation and industrial development, faces a dilemma where the oil industry is concerned. A reliance on farming, fishing and tourism would, unfortunately, leave the islands prone to a low level of economic activity which may result in depopulation and comparatively poor living standards.

The advent of North Sea and recently Atlantic Oil has meant that, for the last quarter of a century, the islands have benefited hugely in terms of employment and income. It has also resulted in Orkney developing an efficient marine and technical aspect to its local industry.

However, tanker accidents (such as the wrecks of “Braer” and “Exxon Valdez”) have meant that the local authority - Orkney Islands Council (OIC) has implemented measures to counter any oil pollution when and where it might occur. The vigilance of organisations such as the RSPB, Greenpeace and (on a local scale) ECO, has meant that the Oil majors, notably Elf and BP, have cooperated with the Harbours Department of OIC in developing, since 1986, an Oil Spill Contingency Plan. This was, in the first instance, to minimise the impact of any accidental pollution resulting from the Flotta Terminal operation which loads North Sea Oil at its installations in Scapa Flow. The potential risk of oil spills from the activities at the Flotta oil terminal are significantly reduced by stringent industry regulations. The Flotta oil terminal has a very good environmental record, with few reported spills, and where they have occurred they have an efficient clean-up rate with negligible environmental impact.

Lately, with the threat of pollution from the Atlantic fields, the Marine Biology Unit of OIC has developed an extensive computer data base covering sensitive coastlines vulnerable to oil slicks from the Foinaven, Schiehallion and Clair fields.

The movement of tankers around Orkney’s coastline is a contentious issue, particularly as the approaches to Scapa Flow and its terminal involve ships navigating through the Pentland Firth which produces some of the strongest tidal currents and roughest seas in the Northern hemisphere. In recent years, pressure on the government has developed for a powerful salvage tug to be stationed in Orkney to assist any vessels which may break down or have difficulty due to bad weather. ECO has strongly supported this initiative.

It must be acknowledged that, so far, the pollution expected due to oil development has not materialised though there have been small incidents which have been generally effectively dealt with by Elf terminal or Harbours Authority. All ballast water from oil tankers (the thousand of tons of water large tankers take on board when empty to enable them to manoeuvre efficiently) is treated ashore by the oil terminal when ships arrive to load their cargo of crude oil. In this operation Orkney is probably unique, and it has meant that the water quality of Scapa Flow is the same as when the North Sea Oil first flowed to Flotta.

Surprisingly, the most immediate threat to the marine environment comes from the Second World War wreck of the battleship “Royal Oak”. Sunk nearly 60 years ago, the hull is still leaking several litres of fuel oil every day into the sea in the North East corner of Scapa Flow. Thanks largely to persistent pressure from ECO, the Royal Navy is reluctantly taking steps to make the wreck safe so that the remaining oil does not escape.

Noise and light pollution

While noise pollution is not a big problem in Orkney, due to normally very low noise background levels, this is taken into account when considering planning approval for any new development or activity. There is however significant impact from the visits by low flying military jets that occasionally pass over the island group causing distress to both wildlife and farm animals.

Light pollution is normally confined to residential and town areas. The impact of lighting from any new development planned outwith these areas has to be considered. For example, at the new pier at Hatston the lights are angled inwards towards the development, and their use is restricted to when loading and unloading are taking place in order to reduce their impact.


Litter is becoming an increasing problem in the more urban areas of Orkney and could be significantly reduced with public awareness campaigns. Beach litter washed up on our shores is unsightly and can pose a threat to wildlife. ECO’s annual “Bag the Bruck” campaign aims to address this problem. ECO also supports the ZeroWaste initiative, fundamental in reducing the source of litter.

Container Hub

ECO is very concerned that the potential economic benefits of this proposed development are being promoted at the expense of environmental concerns, and we do not believe that the environmental impacts are negligible, as a recent report suggested. The Golta peninsula on Flotta, the proposed site of the container hub is a valuable area of lowland maritime heath, a nesting area for Arctic terns and other seabirds and the site of some of the rarer Orcadian plants such as Wood sorrel, Sea spleenwort and the Hay-scented buckler fern. Golta is also a regular haunt for otters. Pollution and foreign species dumped into our waters during the emptying of ballast water is a major concern. In addition, the noise and light pollution is expected to be far in excess of that currently generated by the oil terminal, both during construction and operational phases.