Independent review of Buchanan and St Ambrose schools, Coatbridge, for the Scottish Government
In 2019, the Scottish Government appointed an independent review team (IRT) to investigate and review health issues and contamination concerns surrounding a school campus in a very-high-profile case. RSK was appointed by the Scottish Government to conduct the soil contamination part of the review, which included a desk-based review, soil sampling and a comprehensive assessment of the risks to human health.
The independent review report was published in August 2019 and concluded that there was no link between the Buchanan and St Ambrose high schools and ill health. RSK was commended by the independent review team for its detailed and painstaking work and advice on how to communicate the findings.
The Buchanan and St Ambrose high schools campus was built on previously developed land in Coatbridge, central Scotland. The site was formerly occupied by a colliery and mineral railway lines; later, between 1945 and 1972, it was used as a landfill site, accepting municipal and industrial wastes including residues from a large iron producer nearby. By the 1990s, after restoration, the site was in use as playing fields. A series of site investigations were carried out to assess the geo-environmental and geotechnical risks and planning conditions relating to remediation and verification were satisfied. The schools opened to pupils in November 2012.
As early as October 2013, concerns were raised by school users about a blue tinge to the drinking water on site, which led to various investigations and remedial work. In autumn 2018, concerns were raised in relation to suspected bladder cancer diagnoses affecting five members of staff in one of the schools. Investigations undertaken by NHS Lanarkshire and North Lanarkshire Council (NLC) did not find the cause, but the way that the findings were presented in a public meeting failed to allay concerns. Local politicians became involved and there was active local opposition, culminating in a petition signed by 100,000 people seeking the testing of pupils and staff for heavy metals, a strike by members of a teaching union that closed one school, and only 45% pupil attendance in the other in the run-up to the summer holidays.
In light of these concerns, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, John Swinney, announced on 12 June 2019 that an independent review would be carried out on behalf of the Scottish Government. The remit of the review – agreed following consultation with NLC and NHS Lanarkshire – was to undertake an independent and impartial review of the evidence in relation to the reported health and safety concerns at the campus, including the history and the construction and maintenance of the site, and to provide reassurance to the local community.
IRT scope and findings
The IRT was led by Paul Cackette, the Scottish Government Chief Planning Reporter, and Dr Margaret Hannah, a former Director of Public Health. The review was completed over a very short timescale of eight weeks in order to inform a decision whether to reopen the schools after the summer holidays.
The scope of the review included considering the planning history and associated decision-making, liaising with NLC and NHS Lanarkshire staff to better understand their actions, and engaging with the public and key stakeholders to hear their concerns directly. In addition, the IRT commissioned specialist advisors to verify the previous site assessment and testing and to assess the current site conditions. RSK was appointed to assess soil conditions on site and the risks posed by any contamination found. Other specialists evaluated the integrity of the gas membrane and the water supply to the buildings.
All aspects were then considered by the group of independent expert advisors to inform the report’s conclusions and recommendations. This culminated in the publication, on 9 August 2019, of the IRT report, which concluded that there was no link between the Buchanan and St Ambrose high schools and the reported issues of ill health.
Soil contamination assessment
RSK’s assessment of the current soil conditions was a painstaking investigation undertaken to a challenging timescale. A total of fifty trial-pits were excavated over the course of two days across grassed soft-landscaping areas within the site. The soil samples from the trial-pits were examined carefully, revealing made ground with little visual evidence of contamination. Up to 75 made-ground soil samples were examined, and analyses were scheduled for a wide range of contaminants of concern; these included those potentially associated with cancer risk, such as heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), dioxins and furans. Sampling and testing of additional soil samples from raised growing beds and a polytunnel used for growing fruits and vegetables was also carried out to rule this out as an exposure route.
Potential chronic risks to current site users from exposure to contaminants found in the soils were assessed. Technical guidance and professional judgement were used to develop generic assessment criteria (GAC) appropriate for a secondary school land-use scenario using the Environment Agency contaminated land exposure assessment (CLEA) tool. Additional GAC were developed for some of the contaminants found on site. Sensitivity analysis was also completed against a more sensitive primary school use scenario and for an adult receptor (teacher) at a secondary school.
RSK’s geoenvironmental site investigation report, registered under the National Quality Mark Scheme (NQMS) for land contamination, was published alongside the main IRT report. This concluded that, although the risk to school users from contaminants in the soil was low, one area of potential concern was identified that related to the presence of higher than expected concentrations of PCBs. The IRT report recommended that remediation of this be undertaken on a precautionary basis.
From the outset, the IRT recognised that a key aim was to rebuild community trust in the professionalism and integrity of public officials. Therefore, the approach adopted was based on the key principles of
- independence and freedom from actual or perceived bias or conflict of interest
- openness, particularly to hear representations from as many people as possible and assess the evidence
- transparency, publishing all findings except for medically confidential materials.
The IRT also drew on the wide-ranging experience of the independent expert advisors and RSK. The use of these to support the IRT, and the simplicity in communicating the resulting scientific outcomes of investigations, were key building blocks in restoring trust and achieving the aims of the review.
In addition to assessing soil contamination risks, RSK gave advice on risk communication and, in particular, drew the IRT lead’s attention to the SNIFFER good practice guidance on communicating understanding of contaminated land risks. This led the IRT to consider the shortcomings in the approach that had previously been adopted by public authorities and how best to communicate during the data-gathering phase and disseminate the findings of the final IRT report. It led to the use of multiple methods of communication and engagement with smaller groups, and a shift towards personal engagement by Dr. Hannah, which was evident in the way in which the final report was presented to the media.
Publication of the IRT report received significant coverage from the BBC, STV and major news outlets in Scotland and beyond. The issue of PCB in soils featured prominently in news reports.
On publication, the IRT report received a largely positive reaction in the local community and, after further engagement with the local authority and the union, the findings were accepted by the stakeholders and teachers, and the pupils quickly returned to school. This was facilitated by NLC’s swift acceptance of all the report’s recommendations, including the remediation of the minor-PCB-contaminated area, which occurred a few days after the report was published and was independently verified by RSK.
For further information, please contact Dr Tom Henman, +44 (0)791 7425269