Toxic landfills, fracking and the lethal threat of Environment Agency neglect

A new landfill site opens for business, Scotland. Photo: London Permaculture via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A new landfill site opens for business, Scotland. Photo: London Permaculture via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Nearly a year ago at the height of the UK floods, tragedy struck an ordinary family in Surrey as toxic gas from a nearby landfill site killed a 7-year old boy, Zane. Now the authorities appear determined to exculpate the source of the poison - an old landfill site - even as they prepare for a massive increase in hazardous waste from fracking.
How wise is it to encourage a fracking boom that will cause a 50% increase the landfilling of hazardous waste, creating a massive new toxic legacy for the future?

Zane, a beautiful bright 7-year-old boy who had just won his green stripe belt at martial arts class, and who was described by his headmaster as a "larger than life" figure, died on the nmight of 8th February 2014. Both his parents were taken ill, and his father, Kye, remains paralysed from the waist down.

The cause of death and harm remains officially unknown nearly a year later. Initial reports suggesting carbon monoxide poisoning from water pumps were later discounted. But firemen at the scene detected hydrogen cyanide, later confirmed by Public Health England.

In fact, the house is a rare all electric house with no gas supply and no capability of generating carbon monoxide. No carbon monoxide was found in the family home. Also, it took Public Health England 14 weeks to confirm to the family that hydrogen cyanide was indeed found in their flooded house.

Was it a cover-up?

And amazingly, despite the immediate finding of hydrogen cyanide in the home, the pathologist was never told to test Zane's blood for hydrogen cyanide.

As early as March, the family sent a report to the coroner suggesting important lines of enquiry including testing for hydrogen cyanide. But there is still no official confirmation of what actually killed Zane.

The family's own investigations into the surrounding area have since revealed that a field 6 metres from their home that contains a lake and looks so idyllic, is actually contaminated land - but this did not show in environmental searches.

Zane's parents bought the house in 2004, when an environmental report showed no land contamination. However, subsequent reports for a neighbouring property in 2011, and for their own home, ordered by Zane's parents last month, indicate contamination due to an old landfill site behind their home, now an infilled lake.

They also discovered that the Environment Agency knew about the toxic hazard from the landfill, ordering gas-proof membranes to protect their own staff when they built cabins nearby. This week, the family told Talk Fracking that the authorities, including the Environment Agency, have been "walls of silence".

In response to questions about climate change, the Met Office confirmed that the flooding was "consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming world", thus increasing the potential dangers that flooding could compromise more landfill sites.

Fracking may need countless new landfills to dump its waste

In a recent submission to the Environmental Audit Committee, researcher and consultant Paul Mobbs analyses the water treatment and waste management associated with fracking. He forecasts a 50% increase in hazardous waste landfill, a staggering quarter of a million tonnes.

In December, Talk Fracking gave the Government some Christmas reading in the form of scientific reports on the health dangers of fracking. They included the Government's own scientific advisor warning that fracking could join historic scandals such as asbestos, thalidomide, and lead in petrol.

Energy Minister, Matthew Hancock replied to Talk Fracking this week, citing two reports, one a three-year old study by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), and the other by Public Health England. In his reply he concedes that both reports call for effective regulation and strong enforcement to bring the health, safety and environmental risks to a low level.

With the proposed massive expansion of this new industry across the country, and the many known and accepted risks, including the landfill issues highlighted by Paul Mobbs, you would expect a responsible Government to increase Environment Agency staff accordingly.

And now the Environment Agency cuts its regulatory capacity

In one of the reports Matthew Hancock used in his defence, the RAE stated that "regulatory capacity must be maintained". But just two days after Zane's sad death, news of 25% staff cuts hit the headlines.

Frontline services, according to Chris Smith, the then head of the EA, wouldn't be affected by cuts, even while the agency was already struggling, calling nearly a fifth of frontline staff in from other teams in order to cope with the flooding.

Chris Smith now heads the 'independent' Shale Gas Task Force, where he earns around £1,500 a day, funded by fracking companies.

The new head of the Agency is Sir Phillip Dilley, earning £100k for three days a week work. He used to head the engineering firm, Arup, and is still listed as a trustee. Arup was employed by the leading fracking company, Cuadrilla - whose chairman Lord Browne sat as an advisor in the Cabinet.

It's also been recently revealed that the EA pension fund invests in the very fracking companies it is supposed to regulate. The Environment Agency has just issued Cuadrilla with a brand new permit for drilling in Lancashire.

What Zane's tragic story tells us is that regulators are less concerned about public safety, than about avoiding public awareness of the risks posed by contaminated, unregulated landfill sites throughout the UK. How many are there? Could you be living by one?

And if the Environment Agency cannot even monitor and ensure the safely of our existing industrial and domestic waste dumps, how wise is it to encourage a fracking boom that will cause a 50% increase the landfilling of hazardous waste, creating a massive new toxic legacy for the future?



Petition: 'Call for a public debate into the death of 7 year old Zane' (38 degrees).

This article is based on one originally published by Talk Fracking, a campaign group committed to highlighting the issues surrounding fracking in the UK, holding the policy makers and industry to account and providing a forum for debate.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Death by landfill - cutting 'green tape' costs lives'.


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