THE agency tasked with protecting the country's environment has been repeatedly wined and dined by the fish farming, whisky and power industries, prompting questions about its impartiality.

Information released by Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reveals that 13 board members and senior officials have been treated to 16 meals over the last two years. Five were paid for by fish farming firms, three by the whisky industry, three by power companies and five by other business groups.

Pollution from caged salmon farms, whisky distilleries and power plants is regulated by Sepa, and has caused multiple problems in the past. The Sunday Herald has revealed how Sepa bowed to pressure from the fish farming industry to drop a proposed ban on a toxic pesticide harming wildlife in sea lochs.

Critics have accused Sepa of being “schmoozed” by polluters and are demanding a shake-up. Sepa, however, insists its engagement with companies is “entirely appropriate” and strongly defends its impartiality and independence.

The way Sepa regulates fish farming is undergoing a major review, with deep divisions between industry and environmentalists on the way forward. The industry is planning to double its business from £1.8 billion in 2016 to £3.6bn by 2030.

In March this year Sepa board member, Bill McKelvey, and Sepa’s then head of regulatory services in the north, Anne Anderson, attended an anniversary dinner hosted by the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO), which represents fish farmers.

Anderson was also given breakfast by two fish farming companies in June, Marine Harvest and Loch Duart Salmon. Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, was given dinner by SSPO in November 2015 and April 2016.

Seven whisky distilleries were rated as “poor” for pollution by Sepa in 2014, as were four in 2015. In November 2016 and 2017 four senior Sepa officials attended annual dinners of the Malt Distillers Association of Scotland at a hotel in Elgin.

On November 9 this year Sepa’s chairman, Bob Downes and a senior Sepa official were the guests of the Scotch Whisky Association for dinner at the Macallan distillery in Aberlour.

The coal-fired power station at Longannet in Fife was by far the most polluting plant in Scotland before it closed down in March 2016. In May 2016 Sepa’s head of operations in the east of Scotland, Lin Bunten, and another senior Sepa official were the guests of the plant’s operator, Scottish Power, at a Longannet memorial dinner in Stirling Castle.

Bunten was also the guest of Scottish Power Renewables for dinner in June 2016 and of the industry group, Scottish Renewables, at an awards dinner in May 2017. Other Sepa officials declared dinners from the waste company Viridor, the pro-business Scottish Council Development and Industry, and others (see box below).

Rory O’Neill, a professor at the University of Liverpool and a researcher with Stirling University’s environment health group, described the relationship between Sepa and industry as “worryingly cosy”. He called for an “urgent investigation” by Holyrood.

“Sepa’s dinner hosts include a concerning number of industries with questionable environmental performances. The regulator should know there is no such thing as a free lunch,” he said.

“A regulator should maintain a safe distance from those it regulates, but Sepa has failed spectacularly to maintain this separation. This is a stark failure of ethics and regulatory governance.”

The Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, pointed out that the public expected Sepa to be an independent regulator. “This really does raise questions about their impartiality,” he said.

“Here we have the regulator responsible for ensuring that our land, seas, rivers and skies are protected and free from pollution being schmoozed by the very industries who can be some of the worst polluters.”

Campaigners attacked Sepa for an “appalling” lack of judgment.

“Sadly, Sepa has become a limp industry lapdog content with being wined and dined by polluting industries,” said Don Staniford from the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture.

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor for the wild fish group, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland, said: “Sepa would perhaps be better advised to confine meetings between regulator and regulated to the office.”

Sepa stressed that it was working every day to protect and enhance Scotland’s environment. “We continue to regulate impartially and independently in accordance with environmental legislation,” said Sepa’s chief officer, Jo Green.

“Since our formation, in line with other public bodies, we’ve taken, and will continue to take, opportunities to directly engage with public, private and community sector partners who can influence positive environmental outcomes.”

She added: “We do so by publishing the registered interests of board members and against a stringent code of conduct against which our staff abide, which includes the transparent declaring, registering and publishing of data related to hospitality and gifts, available online for the public to view.”

Industries defended offering Sepa refreshments after meetings when appropriate. “I doubt very much if a bacon roll or a dinner would have any influence on decision making at Sepa,” said SSPO chief executive Scott Landsburgh.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Sepa’s visit was to demonstrate the industry’s environmental credentials. “We took the opportunity to continue our conversation on the environment and collaboration opportunities over dinner,” said the association’s Morag Garden.

Scottish Power said it liaised with a wide number of bodies to share information. Malt Distillers Association of Scotland did not respond to a request to comment.

BOX: Who is buying Sepa meals?

date / event / host

10 Nov 2017 / £70 dinner for senior officials John MacDonald and Fiona Johnstone at Mansfield Hotel, Elgin / Malt Distillers Association of Scotland

9 Nov 2017 / dinner for chairman Bob Downes and senior official Fiona Johnstone at Macallan Distillery, Aberlour / Scotch Whisky Association

7 Nov 2017 / £180 business dinner for senior official Martin Grey with environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham / Scottish Council for Development and Industry

7 Sept 2017 / £186 dinner for senior official Susan Mackay at CBI Scotland event in the Glasgow Hilton / Morton Fraser

14 June 2017 / breakfast for senior official Anne Anderson at Riverhouse, Stirling / Loch Duart Salmon

9 June 2017 / breakfast for senior official Anne Anderson at Dakota Hotel, South Queensferry / Marine Harvest

25 May 2017 / £120 awards dinner for senior official Lin Bunten / Scottish Renewables

16 March 2017 / dinner for board member Bill McKelvey and senior official Anne Anderson at Scottish Salmon Label Rouge anniversary / Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation

11 Nov 2016 / dinner for senior officials Andy Rosie, John MacDonald and Martin Valenti at Mansfield Hotel, Elgin / Malt Distillers Association of Scotland

6 Oct 2016 / £77 dinner for senior official Martin Valenti at Crieff Hydro / Viridor

8 June 2016 / £50 dinner for senior official Lin Bunten / Scottish Power Renewables

20 May 2016 / £80 dinner for senior officials Calum Macdonald and Lin Bunten at Stirling Castle / Scottish Power

22 April 2016 / £50 dinner for chief executive Terry A’Hearn / Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation

11 Feb 2016 / dinner for board member Jackie Hyland at annual conference / National Farmers Union Scotland

28 Jan 2016 / £50 dinner for chief executive Terry A’Hearn / Scottish Environment Services Association

Nov 2015 / £30 dinner for chief executive Terry A’Hearn and four staff / Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation