How knowing the ecology of your site can potentially save you from environmental fines

By Kirsty Spencer and Mark Tomlinson, Principal ecologists

Principal ecologists Kirsty Spencer and Mark Tomlinson explain how finding out about the health of plants, fish and invertebrates on your land and water can keep your business safe.

The variety of liquids and gases our customers such as storage terminals, tank containers, shipping, port or rail operations might handle is vast. Among them are refined petrochemicals, chemical compounds, foodstuffs and energy-based fuels.

Knowing the ecology of your site means you can spot and repair any potential problems that might be building up undetected that could result in serious contamination.

This makes it imperative to look to your site’s ecology for the warning signs that can tell you so much about its environmental health. For example, the diversity of aquatic invertebrates, or lack of them, can indicate the health of a waterbody and suggests whether it is suffering from a slow spill.

A thorough analysis is so much more accurate than ‘taking the pulse’ with a water quality meter, which is merely a snapshot of wellbeing. The in-depth study can report widely varying results over very short periods - for instance, charting rapid rates of decline and recovery in a matter of just days.

This complete check will look at population levels of animals (fauna) and aquatic plants (flora) that are known to be sensitive to pollution.

Detailed knowledge about the different tolerances of various species is essential. For example, stickleback can thrive in quite dirty, poorly oxygenated water, giving the misleading impression that all is well, whereas the loss or absence of brown trout in a river or stream they were once found in can indicate it is contaminated.

Plants that aren’t present where they should be can also be a reliable pointer to a longer-term problem. An advantage over some fauna studies here is that, being stationary, individual plants cannot temporarily move to avoid a pollution event and must either withstand it or die back. 

Reflecting environmental conditions experienced throughout the year, rather than a quick glimpse, these can show where there has been a gradual feed of lethal pollution, such as farm runoff, rather than a quick, obvious hit.

Subtler clues include plant reactions to gradual change, such as where a soil goes from alkaline to acid over time, as a result of a slow, incipient feed of pollution. It’s worth bearing in mind that transformations can occur naturally, as can a loss of moisture in the soil, but it’s the indicator that prompts the study, which determines the cause.

It is vitally important for companies to know how healthy their property and land is. They should commission detailed environmental surveys periodically for an up-to-date, accurate picture – not just when it’s thought there is a problem.

These can validate site cleanliness or spot undetected pollution, allowing it to be dealt with promptly, heading off more serious future issues before they escalate.

Our water and ecology team conduct detailed, highly accurate site audits and guide on remedial action and clean-ups where needed, giving peace-of-mind in detecting and minimising environmental risks.