An investigation into South Wales landfill mountain and local ill health
Eighty per cent of the UK population now lives within 2km of a landfill site. And yet an ongoing state of denial persists about the health consequences of dumping rubbish where people live. Jim Carey investigates the sordid history of one Welsh mountain and examines the scientific evidence being ignored by both local and national authorities.
16th August 2002
No one gets dumped on quite like the southern Welsh. Industrial chimnies, slag heaps, aquatic effluence and two nuclear power stations all conspire to rigorously assault both the local environment and the Welsh physiology.
Now another addition to the onslaught is festering in the hills. Rubbish - huge piles of it; dumped in landfills, soaked in rain and stewing in their own toxic juices.
Once a picnic area, Nantygwyddon rises 350m above the Rhonda Valley. Its name literally means "stream of the forest", and water springs and rain tumble down its slopes into the River Rhonda. In 1980 a European Community regional development grant was awarded to the area and, although intended to "boost industrial development and tourism", was used by Rhonda Borough Council to build a massive rubbish tip on top of the hill. With an annual rainfall of 2,500mm, wind speeds of up to 80 mph across its peek and 20,000 people living round its base, it was an unlikely choice. Nantygwyddon had never been mentioned previously in any Rhonda Waste Strategies but hastily obtained planning permission bypassed the usual processes and the site opened in 1988.
Unusually there is no properly listed itemisation of the materials dumped at Nantygwyddon since that date. The official logging only records the general variety of rubbish i.e. household, building or industrial waste etc.
Furthermore all paperwork and records prior to 1996, when Rhonda Borough Council was subsumed by Rhondda Cynon Taff CBC, have either been destroyed or have "disappeared".
An investigator brought in last year by a committee of the National Assembly of Wales to examine Nantygwyddon wrote: "How virtually all files pertaining to design, contracting, supervision and operation of a controversial development can be 'lost' is impossible to explain, unless there has been a deliberate effort to destroy records. In view of the mounting controversy about the site in the mid nineties, and in the light of my findings, I suspect that a systematic 'clear out' of files may have taken place." The so called "mounting controversy" in the nineties, however, was fermenting at a slower rate than the rubbish itself. Local discontent only really began after a site worker, with a good working knowledge of toxic waste came head to head with the new private management regime at Nantygwyddon.
Andrew Tree had decades of experience in the chemical industry, having been a chemical plant operator and union convenor at a resin factory in Polyclun, 18 miles outside Cardiff. Tree helped represent twelve widows whose husbands had died of cancers caused by exposure to toxic fumes at the factory. After a hard fought battle the widows secured £1 million compensation in the Cardiff courts in 1990. For his commitment to their cause, Andrew Tree received a certificate of merit from his union, the GMB, for 'work above and beyond the call of union duty'.
Having been made redundant when the factory at Pontyclun was temporarily closed down, he was not offered employment when it opened again. Instead he went through a series of jobs before ending up as a site operative at Nantygwyddon in 1988. At that time the landfill site was run by Rhondda Borough Council. Andrew Tree describes his role at Nantygwyddon as 'a bit of an odd job man'; sometimes driving the bulldozer, sometimes logging waste arrivals. He was also a union convenor with a concern for health and safety, and successfully submitted preventative objections if toxic consignments turned up at the gates..
"I knew what rubbish was hanging about and how toxic it was," he told SQUALL. "I'd become quite knowledgeable about toxicology."
Then in March 1995, Rhonda Borough Council created a private company to run the site. Still wholly owned by the council, the 'arms length' company, Rhonda Waste Disposal Ltd, was now its own entity, contractually required to pursue a profit. Rhondda Waste Disposal successfully asked Rhondda Borough Council to amend their licence, allowing the dumping of certain kinds of industrial waste which had previously not been allowed. Permission was granted immediately without public consultation.
"It was 8 March 1995," Andrew Tree recalls. "The very first day the private company took over from the council. And they had two lorries coming up carrying Calcium Sulphate filter cake waste from the same factory site where I'd once worked in Pontyclun. When I pointed out that the material was hazardous and tried to get them turned back, they just told me to go back to work on the bulldozer or I'd be sacked. In front of the management my GMB union officer refused to support me."
Calcium sulphate water pollution filter cake is a type of industrial pollution produced as a result of filtering chemical or engineering effluents. It rapidly reacts with household rubbish and quickly produces large volumes of hydrogen sulphide gas.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, hydrogen sulphide produces the smell of rotting eggs at 0.13 parts per million (ppm). Inflammation and irritation of the eyes occurs with airborne concentrations from just under 10 ppm upwards. Short term exposure at 50 ppm can result in marked dryness and irritation of the nose and throat, whilst prolonged exposure causes a runny nose, cough hoarseness, shortness of breath and pneumonia. Above 50 ppm there is intense tearing, blurring of vision and pain when looking at light. Unlike Nantygwyddon, Trecatti landfill site situated ten miles away already had a licence to dump hazardous waste. Filter cake from a variety of sources, including the resin factory at Pontyclun, was dumped there on a regular basis. However, the residents of Dowlais, at the base of the Trecatti site, began complaining about the constant smell of rotten eggs and eventually picketed the council-run site in protest. In response Rhonda Borough Council allowed the filter cake to be sent to Nantygwyddon instead, evidently hoping noone would be any the wiser. However, they didn't bank on the presence of a site operative with the experience and knowledge of Andrew Tree.
With his warnings unheeded by the management of Nantygwyddon, the Health and Safety Executive and his union, the GMB, Andrew Tree began speaking about the situation with his fellow Rhondda residents. Members of his local darts team offered to help him broadcast the existence and implications of what was happening and, very soon, every noticeboard in the pubs and clubs of the area had a sheet of information about the dangers of Hydrogen Sulphide and the other toxic chemicals seeping from the site. The local television station, HTV, came down and interviewed Tree as part of documentary about landfill sites.
In November 1995 Andrew Tree was sacked by Rhonda Waste Disposal Ltd, charged with putting the companys name into disrepute. And, at aged 62, with his GMB certificate of merit still hanging over his fireplace, Andrew Tree was forced to fight his own industrial tribunal case when his union refused to back him.
His former employers were keen to ensure Andrew Tree would not be able to present information about the Nantygwyddon site at an industrial tribunal, and offered him a sum of money in settlement. Because the amount offered was greater than the sum he would have received if he'd won the tribunal, ACAS informed him he would have to accept the offer or face paying all the costs of the tribunal.
However, Tree wanted his case heard and countered ACAS's advice by claiming that, because of his age, he was unlikely to get another job, and that his sacking had severely affected his possible pension rate. He therefore pursued the industrial tribunal case on the basis that the sum of money offered didn't take into account his possible pension.
It is a testament to how keen the company were to silence him that Rhondda Waste Disposal Ltd then agreed to pay him a pension rate equivalent to his demands. Rhondda Waste Disposal Ltd had now spent a five figure sum on preventing the case going to an industrial tribunal. ACAS told Andrew Tree he now had to accept their renewed offer as all the criteria of his claim had now been met. He had no choice.
By now the local residents around Nantygwyddon were realising that the prevalence of defective births, ill health, eye infections and the constant bad smell in their area had a targetable cause. In June 1996, the Environment Agency finally acknowledged their complaints but stated "the odours were transient and difficult to substantiate and qualify."
It took until Autumn 1996 for the Agency to acknowledge what Andrew Tree had been saying all along, and what the people around Trecatti had already so forcefully asserted: That Hydrogen Sulphide was seriously bad news. The Environment Agency's wording of their approach is indicatively lethargic: "In Autumn 1996, the Agency began to consider the breakdown of calcium sulphate filter cake as a contributory cause".
But local residents - singularly unimpressed with the complacent attitude of the Environment Agency, Bro Taff Health Authority and the local council - decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a group called Rhondda Against Nantygwyddon Tip (RANT) and began picketing the access road to the Nantygwyddon site. For certain periods the tip became inaccessible as a result of their action, and Rhondda Waste Disposal Ltd began to lose contracts. In June 1997, after a continuing barrage of complaints and public meetings, the Environment Agency decided to commission Entec, a firm of specialist environmental consultants, to examine the amount of Hydrogen Sulphide and other toxic chemicals present both on the landfill site and in the local community. Within weeks Rhondda Waste Disposal Ltd temporarily shut the site, saying the picketing by local residents was hampering work. Alarmingly the company withdrew all personnel from the site except security, meaning the amount of leachate seeping from the site was no longer under direct control. Faced with a massive environmental disaster, the Environment Agency forced the company to send staff back in to the site to stem the tide.
The temporary closure of the site also meant that Entec - the environmental monitoring company brought in by the Environment Agency - were conducting their study whilst the site was closed, a factor which would have played a diminutive part in their results. Despite this, however, Entec found unusually high levels of Hydrogen Sulphide gas and other toxic chemicals both on the site and in the local community.
The Environment Agency subsequently issued specific requirements for improvements to the site which, despite extensions to the deadline, were not fulfilled by the company. In September 1999 the Environment Agency fined Rhonda Waste Disposal Ltd., and transferred their landfill licence to another 'arms length' company wholly owned by the council called Amgen.
By this time it had been four years since Andrew Trees sacking for revealing the truth about filter cake and hydrogen sulphide gas. In that period the council had managed to curtail direct action outside the landfill gates by passing ownership of the land occupied by the landfill over to Rhondda Waste Disposal Ltd. The private company then successfully took out an injunction against seven key members of the local protest group, including two local councillors, on the basis they were now trespassing on private land. The effectiveness of the protest blockade was broken.
However, alarm bells in the peeled louder after a series of epidemiological studies produced statistically significant excesses of disease and congenital abnormality in populations proximate to landfill sites.
In 1997 the Welsh Combined Centres for Public Health from the University of Wales College of Medicine was called in to determine whether a variety of allegations made by Rhondda residents about local disease clusters could be validated with local NHS data. Residents claimed increased birth abnormalities, infant mortality, asthma, respiratory diseases and eye irritations. The study did indeed show that there was a very significant increase in the risk of congenital abnormality in babies from exposed wards. It also confirmed that there was an unusual cluster of babies born with gastroschisis (a condition where the intestine forms outside the abdomen). A rise in prescriptions for broncho-dilators and anti-biotics also backed up allegations of increased incidence of asthma and eye infections. In 1988 a major study of the incidence of congenital abnormality around hazardous waste landfill sites, published in The Lancet, gave further cause for alarm. The EUROHAZCON Report examined statistics from 21 hazardous waste landfill sites in five European countries; ten of which were in the UK. The report discovered that babies born around such sites were 33 per cent more likely to have a congenital abnormality.
At this stage one might have considered there were good grounds for shutting hazardous waste landfill sites throughout the UK, and taking immediate preventative measures against further leakage. Afterall public health considerations are supposed to be governed by what is known as the 'Precautionary Principle' i.e. if there is justifiable doubt you do not go ahead. But no such action was taken.
Central government, the Environment Agency and local health authorities continued to pass doubt over the interpretation and implication of research statistics and Nantygwyddon, along with a multitude of other such sites around the UK, continued accepting toxic waste material. The Department of Health decided to commission further research on the matter from the Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU), a research unit based at University College London and funded by a variety of government departments. The project took another two years to complete - 15 months more than stated - and, when finally published in August 2001, not only demonstrated a significant increase in congenital abnormalities around hazardous waste landfill sites, but also revealed significant increases around ordinary household waste landfills. The report also acknowledged that incidences of low birth weight were higher in the vicinity of landfills.
The apparently uncontrolled nature of Nantygwyddons waste material gave rise to justified speculation about the existence radioactive waste. A number of local residents told SQUALL that they'd seen lorries heading up the mountain at 4am in the morning on several occasions, escorted by other vehicles. According to official records there is no radioactive material deposited there. However in a water analysis survey of the leachate seeping from the site, commissioned by the Environment Agency in the late nineties, Caesium 136, Plutonium 236 and Tritium were all present. There is no official explanation for the presence of the highly radioactive isotopes and, with the lack of written records and regulation, we may never know whether radioactive material ended up on the site.
According to a statistic recently acknowledged by the Department of Health, eighty per cent of the UK population now lives within 2km of a currently operated or buried landfill site. And yet central government and the Environment Agency still play down the significance of research as if the 'precautionary principle' was never an imperative. Commenting of the publication of the SAHSU findings, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Pat Troop, said: "The results are difficult to interpret and we need to put them into context. We cannot say that there is no risk from landfill sites, but given the small numbers of congenital anomalies and the uncertainties of the findings, we are not changing our advice to pregnant women." After ten years hard struggle by the residents of Rhondda a break through finally came when the Environment, Transport and Planning committee of the new National Assembly for Wales agreed to bring in an independent investigator.
David Purchon conducted 36 days of interviews with witnesses from local and national authorities, and spent six months writing an investigative report on Nantygwyddon finally published in December 2001. Although his report ignored significant parts of a complex story, it was nevertheless unusually candid.
It heavily criticised the original planning permission, the auditing of finance, the obstructive nature/maladminstration of the local authority, the treatment of local residents and the slothful approach of Environment Agency. Purchon also acknowledged that Andrew Tree had been "aggrieved" by all parties including his own union, "illustrating the cost of whistleblowing to a lone worker". Furthermore, he asserted the human rights of local residents had been compromised by measures to prevent them demonstrating outside the landfill site's gates.
The report concluded: "The Nantygwyddon tip was probably perceived as a cheap long-term waste disposal option originally. It later offered what was seen as a potential capital receipt or income generator for the owning authority when it was vested in an arms length company... The tip now has a limited life and it is hard to see it as an asset in any sense." Purchon's report recommended that there should be a cessation of household waste deposits at Nantygwyddon forthwith.
"There are children have not lived beyond five years old because of the Nantygwyddon landiflll site," says Andrew Tree, now 69 years old.
The National Assembly of Wales accepted all recommendations and observations from Purchon's report. In March this year Rhondda Cynon Taf local councillors asked Purchon during a public meeting whether all tipping should cease. He said yes. And at a Welsh Assembly meeting shortly after he was asked by an AM (welsh MP) when the site should be shut. He replied this afternoon. Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC closed the site immediately.
However, ten miles down the road the Trecatti Landfill still operates on a hill above a local population which includes the town of Merthyr Tydfill. It is a bigger landfill site than Nantygwyddon and has had a licence to accept toxic industrial waste for a longer period of time. And it is still accepting further additions to its already huge, toxically fermenting, dump.
Why is it still open? "They haven't got a very strong action group up there in Trecatti," observes Andrew Tree. "We had to go at it like terriers for ten years to get anything done at Nantygwyddon."
Why local residents had to fight so hard against such flagrant disregard for both environment and public health is difficult to understand. But with central government currently viewing landfills and incinerators as a solution to the UK's waste problem; the festering piles - and the congenital abnormalities - look set to continue.
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