Town wants answers over 122,000 tonnes of illegally dumped waste
- Credit: © Terry Harris
Angry councillors called for the Environment Agency to explain why legal action has not been taken against those responsible for illegally dumping 122,000 tonnes of potentially hazardous waste in the Fens.
It is an escalating crisis – first revealed by this newspaper – that has sharpened the resolve of both a town and district council to intervene.
Unbeknown to most residents of Whittlesey, the illegal dumping at the former Saxon Pits brickworks persisted over many years.
And when it was discovered, and tests revealed the toxicity of the illegal waste, the Environment Agency quietly dropped legal action.
“I'll be quite honest with you,” says Chris Boden, a Whittlesey town, district and county councillor.
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“To my mind, the Environment Agency has failed abysmally to fulfil its legal functions.
“But the Environment Agency faces perilously little accountability for its actions and inactions, especially at local level.”
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Cllr Boden, also the leader of Fenland District Council, said: “We face having a minimum of 122,858 tonnes of non-conforming waste in Saxon Pit.
“Of the borehole samples of that waste analysed by the Environment Agency, 86 per cent have been found to contain sufficient chemical contaminants to render them hazardous.
“The EA, without any consultation with local representatives, has clearly become inclined towards just leaving this hazardous waste in situ, capped in a manner which has not been fully disclosed to us.”
Two separate planning applications have brought the issue into focus.
Firstly, there is an application to demolish two chimneys at the pit (refused but expected to be granted when it goes back to a county council planning committee).
And secondly a bid to create a recycling plant at the site – an application Cllr Boden and other town councillors repeatedly queried at their recent meeting.
Many believe it is an incinerator that will be used to generate the ash needed to cover over the unlawfully dumped waste.
Saxon Pit is part of the historic network of former brickworks in Whittlesey; it was a major source of employment for over 100 years.
Unlikely many other heritage assets, however, the chimneys are not listed despite the best efforts of county council historians.
Their recent study of Saxon Pit concluded that “the industrial heritage of Whittlesey should not be overlooked”.
Those wanting to demolish them, though lawful, should be obliged to record “the historic land use before it is altered”.
Whittlesey town council and other councillors are, however, more concerned about Saxon Pit’s more recent use for the dumping of waste.
Cllr Boden said there is still no sight of effective enforcement action being taken in respect of “what at face value appears to be an egregious and substantial breach of the existing site operator's licence with the EA”.
He said the unlawful dumping took place between October 2017 and February 2018, according to the EA. “But why have there been no prosecutions and fines for the operating company?” he asked.
“Why has no action been taken against the directors and/or whoever else may have been responsible? “
Meanwhile, he said, water from the pit, “contaminated with anything from nothing to hazardous chemical contaminants (we just don't know!) has been pumped into the local watercourse system, with completely unknown consequences for aquatic and human life”.
Cllr Roy Gerstner remains confused about the use of the term incinerator and that of a recycling plant.
The terminology confuses Cllr Boden, too, admitting that “I can confirm recycling plant is the wording use.
“But I can also confirm on other documentation incinerator used; whether it has been used correctly we will have to wait and see.
“Either way a considerable amount of material coming on to site will have to use the A605 and will cause particular difficulty with traffic”
Cllr Alex Miscandlon, a town councillor but also chair of Fenland District Council, said: “I think the Environment Agency has not covered themselves with any glory over this.”
He wants a direct approach to the Minister of State for the Environment.
“The EA should be brought to task; questions need to be asked if this is criminal negligence to allow so much to go on and not be forthcoming about what comes before the public
“The public has the right to know what is going on.”
Cllr Boden is proposing eight actions for Fenland Council to carry through – even though they have limited powers to intervene.
He wants the council to be given all the results of the 50 boreholes drilled on the site.
Cllr Boden wants information on the likely effectiveness of capping the illegal waste and the effect of water being pumped into the local watercourses.
He also wants an explanation from the EA about their refusal to prosecute, and is hopeful the district council will press the Government for responses.
Once approved, he will ask that his motion be forwarded to Stephen Barclay MP, Cambridgeshire County Council's planning department and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
As previously reported the issues arose when the EA investigated odour complaints associated with “inadequate waste acceptance procedures” at the pit.
Permission to fill the former quarry face had been agreed with the county council but the EA said their investigations revealed “a large-scale problem” of non-conforming waste being deposited covering a wide area of the site and down to a depth of approximately two metres.
A county council report says at the time work was halted it was to assess what remediation was needed.
Although the EA served an enforcement notice requiring the removal of the non-conforming waste, they later withdrew it whilst at the same time putting together evidence on the medium- and long-term stability of the pit face.
Those inquiries, says the county council, confirmed that non-conforming waste had been put across a further five phases of the development.
However, two years later, in January,2020, the EA told the county council they did not intend to monitor the pit’s stability any further.
And in June, 2020, the EA advised the operator the non-conforming waste could remain provided containment measures were put in place.
An update on Saxon Pit was given to MP Steve Barclay by the EA at the end of November following his inquiry about a fresh planning application for the recycling plant at the pit.
It was revealed that the company behind it – Johnsons Aggregates and Recycling Ltd – is pressing ahead with works on the site ahead of permission being granted.
“Johnsons have been advised that the successful determination of any application is by no means guaranteed,” says Simon Hawkins, area director of the EA.
However, he told the MP that the company has indicated “they intend to commence installing infrastructure and containment measures in advance of being issued a permit.”
Mr Hawkins says this will be “entirely at their own risk.”
The EA confirmed to Mr Barclay that the 122,858 tonnes of non-confirming waste by the current operator would not be subject to any action.
The waste said Mr Hawkins had been “unlawfully buried within the void between October 2017 and February 2018. This excludes waste unlawfully accepted and buried by previous operators pre-October 2017”.