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Council serves notice on polluting landfill site because Environment Agency “simply haven’t achieved enough” to tackle harmful gas

Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has served a Statutory Nuisance Abatement Notice on a landfill site operator, requiring the organisation to abate the statutory nuisance created from a foul odour it said has been affecting residents' health and wellbeing.

The Environment Agency (EA), which is the regulatory body charged with overseeing the landfill site at Walley’s Quarry, says the work it is requiring the operator to undertake to tackle the odour is helping. But Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council said the EA "simply haven't achieved enough, and what they have done has taken too long".

The notice comes as a local family has lodged a judicial review application at the High Court against the Environment Agency (EA) over its failure to force the landfill operator to reduce the emissions from the site.

The landfill in Staffordshire has been the subject of thousands of complaints about foul odours and has been known to the council as a potential source of pollution since February 2020, when Newcastle first pledged to look into the issue.

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In a special cabinet meeting last month (21 July), councillors heard the results of a report which said air quality monitoring equipment indicated that concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in the area remain above the World Health Organization's odour annoyance guideline level.

At low levels, exposure to the gas can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract, cause coughs and lead to laboured breathing. According to Public Health England, chronic exposure to the gas is thought to have respiratory, neurological and ocular effects at high concentrations.

The Environment Agency is the lead regulator for such sites and is required to test and enforce compliance with the permit under which the site operates, Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council said.

The council also has a role in influencing the operation and performance of such sites where an operator fails to comply with actions required under an abatement notice issued by the council in relation to any statutory nuisance caused by the site, a council report stated.

In last month's cabinet meeting, Newcastle-under-Lyme's chief executive recommended the council approve a £1m 'war chest' budget to meet the costs associated with taking formal action. The cabinet approved the budget and went on to serve the notice.

The decision followed "a lot of detailed preparatory work to put the legal case together," said Simon Tagg, Leader of the Council. "This triggers the only action the local authority can take to try and stop this terrible blight on our residents' lives."

Cllr Tagg added: "For too long we have seen the impact of the odours on residents' physical and mental health and the effect on their children. We have also seen the impact on our businesses and schools and the increasing concerns from medical professionals.

"We have been urging the operators of the landfill to do the right thing, to stop the foul odours, but they haven't. Instead, they have repeatedly refused to take public responsibility for the damage their activities have inflicted on so many local people. We have also waited for the Environment Agency to use their powers as regulators to bring the site into compliance but they simply haven't achieved enough, and what they have done has taken too long.

"So, the council is having to do something that we believe hasn't happened very often in the UK – a local authority serving an abatement notice on an Environment Agency regulated site. We have to set aside Council Taxpayers money to do this but local people have suffered too much, for too long, and we can't stand by and let it go on without challenge."

Newcastle said it does not have any powers to suspend, restrict or close operations at the landfill, but in taking this action "requires the abatement of the nuisance and the prohibition of any recurrence".

The company has five months to comply or 21 days to appeal the notice. In taking legal action, the council said it will rely on legislation around the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which places a duty on a local authority to serve an abatement notice where "a statutory nuisance is identified or considered likely to arise or recur [and] any dust, steam, smell or other effluvia arising on industrial, trade or business premises and being prejudicial to health or a nuisance".

At the same time, a judicial review application has been made against the Environment Agency by the family of a five-year-old boy with breathing problems named Mathew Richards, who live near the site.

The boy's doctors said the gas emitted by the landfill is worsening his condition.

The smell remains the single biggest issue that the Newcastle Under-Lyme receives complaints on, leading to the need for a dedicated page on its website for residents to report their experiences. In the first six months of 2021, the council received a total of 18,227 complaints, and the Environment Agency 32,541.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: "We don't want the community to continue to suffer from impacts of odour from Walleys Quarry. That's why we will continue to do the best we can with the powers we have to bring the odour under control.

"We have been working in partnership with Public Health England, along with Staffordshire County Council and Newcastle under Lyme Borough Council since March to understand any risk that the site may pose and provide the right advice to the local community.

"The work we are requiring the operator to do is making a difference and producing some improvements that will significantly reduce the amount of landfill gas escaping from the site and reduce odour in the long-term. There is still a long way to go and we recognise that for residents at the moment it still smells, but hydrogen sulphide levels are reducing.

"We understand that many residents want the landfill closed. Walleys Quarry is an active landfill and closing it would not stop emissions from the site, and these emissions would still need to be managed."

In a statement, Nigel Bowen, CEO of Walleys Quarry Ltd, said: "Walleys Quarry Ltd remains committed to doing everything that is within our power to help remedy the situation as soon as possible, working in conjunction with the Environment Agency and other stakeholders.

"We have every sympathy for the health of Mathew Richards, and the wellbeing of his family. Upon receiving the report by Dr Ian Sinha, we moved swiftly to seek independent medical opinion and will present the findings at the forthcoming judicial review hearing at the High Court. In the meantime, we will be following the relevant processes and are not able to comment further at this time.

"We continue to assess and implement identified measures, for example capping and gas infrastructure works as part of the natural cycle of site operation. We will continue to communicate these measures to the local community and other stakeholders via our weekly updates on our website.

"We have also engaged technical specialists to investigate sources of the issue, and recently commissioned a report with environmental experts MJCA. This report found that an alternative potential source of hydrogen sulphide exists, including it being present in the groundwater as the result of historical geological faults, mineral deposits and mining activity in the area. We will continue to investigate alternative sources of the issue to ensure that it can be effectively addressed."

Adam Carey

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