Does Siccar Point need saving?

A post by Chris RowanI’m a strong advocate of geoheritage – the idea that there are places in the world worthy of protection because of their geological importance. They can either be places that vividly illustrate a geological process, or clearly record an important event in Earth history; or they have historical importance as a place where such processes or events were first recognised by our scientific forefathers. Siccar Point, on the east coast of Scotland, is a place where both apply (as they often do): it is not only a place to take students to show them a textbook angular unconformity, and allow them to trace their eyes and fingers across the vast gulfs of Deep Time, but it’s also the place where James Hutton first saw his ideas about vast stretches of time occupied by endless cycles of rock formation and uplift in the flesh (or, if you’re being pedantic, in the rock). If any place is worthy of preservation for future geologists, it’s here.

Hutton's Unconformity at Siccar Point

Hutton's Unconformity at Siccar Point. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2009.

So I was understandably concerned when I picked up some worrying chatter that suggested that Siccar Point was threatened by a new pipeline being built by vegetable growers R&K Drysdales to discharge waste water from vegetable washing into the sea. The “Save Siccar Point” website claims:

…a company is planning to ruin the location by digging a trench just a few meters east of this iconic location, lay a pipeline, and then fill that trench with concrete. This will cause permanent damage to the rock-bed and leave a visible scar at this important location forever.

Their plan is to dig a trench across a scientifically sensitive and important area, fill it with concrete, and dump their waste straight into the sea…

However, I was also a bit perplexed, since I know that Siccar Point is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which means that it is protected from development; any planning application that truly threatened the site’s geological integrity would not be approved – or at least, should not be approved. It seemed rather unlikely that Drysdales would submit an application that didn’t at least attempt to minimise the impact on the SSSI. To their credit, Save Siccar Point do link to the planning application so we can examine what is actually being proposed. Here’s a map of the proposed pipeline:

Route of the proposed waste water pipeline near Siccar Point.

This shows that the planned outflow is at least 100 m down the coast from Siccar Point itself. You might be able to see something from the top of the cliffs if you were actually searching for it (it will be buried until it is below the waterline); but as far as I can tell you wouldn’t be able to see it at all from the locality itself. It certainly wouldn’t appear on any of the photos or video in my detailed post on Hutton’s unconformity. More importantly, they have clearly added a dogleg to the route, lengthening the pipeline and moving it away from Siccar Point itself. This suggests that Drysdales are at least aware of the potential impact on the SSSI and are attempting to minimise it – as they would have to, to get approval. You can argue over whether what they are proposing is sufficient, of course; but personally, I can’t see this really impeding or degrading the experience for future visiting geologists. An opinion I share with Scottish National Heritage, who have added a submission that specifically states:

“We do not consider that the proposed development will impact on the geological interest of Siccar Point Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its location outwith the boundaries of this site.”

Is it worth keeping an eye on this? Yes. Would I prefer, in an ideal world, for this pipeline to be further away from Siccar Point? Probably. But if it goes in as planned, will it destroy some irreplaceable geo-heritage? Not as far as I can see. Don’t panic!

See also: a statement from the Geological Society of London (which also boils down to, “Don’t panic!”), and Drysdale’s response to Save Siccar Point Campaign’s concerns, and the many submitted objections that it has inspired.

Categories: environment, geology, outcrops, society
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Comments (10)

  1. Ron Schott says:

    Glad to see this thoughtful commentary from you, Chris. A nice balanced counterpoint to a lot of the knee jerk fearmongering that a lot of geologists have been rather shallowly engaging in.

  2. Siccar Point is on the east coast of Scotland… (first paragraph).

    Good article though!

  3. Jon Tennant says:

    Cheers for providing some balance to this issue Chris.

    I wonder if anyone with pipe-laying experience can say how much of an eyesore a 75mm pipe+associated trench will be?

    Also, does anyone know what the planning laws are in the UK for building into an ‘Area of Great Landscape Value’?

    • James Hutton says:

      The pipeline lies outside the boundary of the SSSI. Many folk are aghast that Scottish Natural Heritage do not see it as their remit to comment on development outside the boundary of an SSSI, even though they define their purpose thus,
      • promote care for and improvement of the natural heritage
      • help people enjoy it responsibly
      • enable greater understanding and awareness of it
      • promote its sustainable use, now and for future generations

      As such Scottish Natural Heritage believe it is up to the local authority to consider – The Scottish Borders Council

  4. As long as I don’t have to wade through turds to get to the unconformity, it’s all good

    • Jon Tennant says:

      Check out the images in the response from Drysdale’s – it looks like water to me, with some vegetable sugars dissolved in.

      Unless they drastically change their treatment methods, the ‘wash water’ shouldn’t be too different. Should it..?

      Unless by ‘wade through turds’, you meant ‘shove undergraduates out the way’?

  5. James Hutton says:

    From The Geological Society of London’s Website , “While the pipeline lies outside the boundary of the SSSI, its construction and burial in concrete may nonetheless have an adverse visual impact on visitors’ appreciation of the Siccar Point site. The visual impact could be seriously exacerbated if the pipeline were to become exposed or rupture. The area around Siccar Point is attractive to tourists, in large part because of its beautiful and historically important geology. It is also renowned worldwide as a location for field visits by students and professional geoscientists. Any visual impact on the site would be deleterious to this major educational, amenity and heritage resource. A significant fall in visitor numbers due to actual or perceived impacts on the site would be disadvantageous to the local economy.”

  6. Andrew Deacon says:

    I understand the potential grounds for objecting to this pipeline from the geological community but I would ask, Why are they being allowed to dump biological effluent into the sea at all? This is a cynical attempt to profit by saving money that should be spent on a biological effluent treatment plant thereby avoiding the pollution in the first place. No waste=no pipeline

  7. We appreciate any comments made on this, irrespective of whether they completely agree with our own concerns or not.

    We have linked to the planning application, and had images on our site showing the pipe’s approximate location, from the first day it went live.

    There have been some developments on the site (both ours and official objections on the Council planning site) from locals who are familiar with the existing effluent and how it has changed over the years. Even if you feel the trench itself is not an issue that concerns you, the impact of the effluent (which WILL end up on Siccar Point) may be a concern.

    The image you publish on your site actually shows the first of these changes. The pipeline route starts at the settlement lagoon and completely by-passess the reed-bed stage. Other drawings show that lagoon as the source of the waste water being expelled. As one local said of the effluent before the reed beds – “it converted the stream into a very foul smelling sewer. However, the problem was dealt with very successfully by installing a reed bed” – and that was effluent that was approved as suitable for flowing to the sea by SEPA. Our own cited research also clearly shows that whatever comes out of that pipe will end up on Siccar Point due to prevailing wave directions and tidal movements, and if it’s going to be of similar composition to what it was in the past (and their plans show it will) then it’s not going to be pleasant.

    We’ve never taken anyones comments at face value. We always look for the proof to backup their statements. The Geological Society have swallowed the official line regarding the effluent (whatever it consists of) not landing on Siccar Point when SNH’s own research shows that it clearly will. They haven’t even got the pipe depths correct (they quote 3.5m at MLWS when it it actually almost 2.4m). If you check our site out it does cite references to figures, if we state an opinion it is invariably backed up by the reasoning behind it. Saying that, the Geological Society have been responsive on other matters we’ve contacted them about and we have no issue with them. We also understand the position they find themselves in as an official body who must remain impartial.

    We do object to this planning application, but we have tried to present the information so people can make up their own minds. We have tried not to be too selective in only presenting our side of the story, but people need to make up their own minds about it.