In the 19th century Scotland’s cities and towns were breeding grounds for disease and poverty. This was exacerbated, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, by manufacturers disposing of waste products. With few regulations in place to govern such disposal, factories chose the cheapest methods available to them. In many cases this simply meant dumping waste into local rivers.
And Linlithgowshire was no stranger to such issues. In the late-19th century newspaper articles abound about rivers becoming polluted due to the shale industry’s reckless disposal of its waste products. The number of fish swimming in the rivers was reducing, and in some cases were found to be covered in fungus.
What was needed was a works which could sanitise the sewage before disposal. The answer came in the form of sewage works. Such places began to emerge in Linlithgowshire around the turn of the century, in towns such as Bathgate and Linlithgow. By the 1910s the Linlithgow County Council was aware that numerous drainage districts around Broxburn and Uphall were emptying their effluence into the Brox Burn. To remedy this they determined to build a works to treat local sewage.
And so, on 14th April 1914, a sewage works was opened to the south-east of Broxburn. The cost was £9,000, and this provided a number of tanks, each undertaking its own part of the sanitation process, and six spray beds (filter beds). The spray beds were 77 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep, and land was set aside for expansion, although this never came to pass. Up to 450,000 gallons of sewage could pass through the works each day. The Broxburn Sewage Works, as it was to be known, would serve around 12,500 local inhabitants.
Robert Hastie, chairman of the Uphall Parish Council, declared the works open, being presented with a rose bowl as thanks. The gathered group of VIPs then proceeded to the Masonic Hall in Broxburn for tea.
The Broxburn Sewage Works remained in place for at least the next 40 years, and the site now hosts Keyline Civils and Drainage.
Around a decade after James Young’s first Chemical Works was erected at Bathgate in 1850, concerns began to be raised by communities and farmers near to the shale fields as to the amount of pollutants being dumped into local rivers, lochs, and canals.
By the 1870s the Breich Water was ‘of a yellow dirty colour, and quite unfit for use.’ Likewise, the River Avon was ‘in a very impure condition,’ whilst the Union Canal was ‘very much polluted.’
Attempts were made to address the issue via the Pollution of Rivers Inquiry in 1870, leading to numerous legal actions being raised by irate farmers suffering from contaminated land and water, and the detrimental effect it had on livestock. Some refuted all responsibility. The West Calder Oil Company called for the pursuers to be barred from complaining of the alleged pollution, arguing that the allegations were ‘irrelevant’. Most held up their hands. Young’s and Oakbank, for example, admitted that by their actions they ‘wrongfully, and to the injury of the pursuers, permitted impurities to be discharged from their works into the waters complained of [and] undertook to take all practical means to put a stop to the pollution complained of, so far as occasioned by them, in all time coming.’
In 1873 the River Pollution Commissioners released figures that added strength to the colour of the water. Between 1861 and 1871 the mortality rate per 1,000 per annum rose from 23.9 to 32.9. The shale industry challenged the figures on the basis that other industries might also be liable.
The prevent the pollution of rivers the River Pollution Prevention Act was passed in 1876, and strengthened in 1893. But companies continued to break the law. In 1905 Midlothian Council won a case against the Oakbank and Pumpherston Oil Companies, forcing them to introduce remedial works to halt pollution of the River Almond from their respective oil works. And six years later the Hog family of Newliston took Broxburn Oil Company to court for allowing soot and noxious vapours to spoil its lands.