Chemical dump village faces total disintegration

As fears over toxic seepage prompt an exodus, the Government considers extending homeowners' rights to stop building projects
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The Independent Online

The village of Weston, Cheshire, is slowly disintegrating eight months after people there were told that a chemical dumped 25 years ago by the local ICI plant was seeping into the foundations of buildings.

The village of Weston, Cheshire, is slowly disintegrating eight months after people there were told that a chemical dumped 25 years ago by the local ICI plant was seeping into the foundations of buildings.

Only 21 of Weston's 467 houses are affected by the toxic gas but fears over the safety of the whole community, and the level of compensation offered by ICI, have started an exodus. Soon, one-third of residents will have moved; the bus company is considering pulling out and the 100-year-old Scout hut is deserted. Now villagers are awaiting the fate of their shop.

The chemical hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD) was found by chance when ICI, whose Castner Kellner plant is next to the village, did routine tests on possible effects of old chlorine production methods.

HCBD affects plants and wildlife and is believed to cause kidney and liver cancer in humans. Tests have suggested it might also cause foetal abnormalities but there is no evidence of the effects of long-term exposure.

The chemical had been poured into pools in Weston's old north quarry in the Fifties and Sixties, only to seep out through the sandstone which had sustained the mining village for 100 years from 1820.

ICI has said it accepts that the scare would damage already paltry property prices and has offered to buy homes for up to twice what they would have fetched on the open market, as well as paying removal and solicitors' costs.

Rex Merry's five-bedroom Grade II listed former quarrymaster's house failed to fetch £120,000 two years ago but ICI is prepared to pay him £250,000. Mr Merry, a retired local-government officer, said: "They are saying they want to keep the village together but are paying out most money to those who want to go rather than stay."

Mr Merry's house is not even classified as unsafe: the HCBD levels are 0.020 parts per billion (ppb), well below the 0.6 ppb decreed safe by the Department of Health. But it is in what ICI has defined as the "green zone" of properties most affected, standing above the south quarry, where HCBD was also dumped in drums. Mr Merry said: "It's surely a question of how long the drums will remain intact." He says he will probably move a few miles down the road.

It is part of Weston's predicament that Mr Merry finds himself envied by others. Some neighbours have been consigned to ICI's "blue zone" of homes not monitored by the company because they are farther from the quarry. The chemical company has used its zoning system to work out compensation for the villagers, regardless of whether they stay or go: out of the 480 households, the 100 in the green zone get £5,000; those in the blue zone get £2,500; and those further away get nothing. Mr Merry said the system was "divisive".

Kenneth and Lynda Farrow and their four children, one of the 21 families immediately offered alternative accommodation when the HCBD was found, have been told to find an £80,000 property, although their house was valued at £48,000. This week, Mr Farrow said that he could find nothing suitable and threatened to return to Weston. "We never wanted to leave our home in the first place," he said.

Village rumour has it that the contamination could have triggered cancer, stillbirths and miscarriages. Malcolm Peacock, 35, who runs the village shop, is in remission from throat cancer and his mother, Rhiannon, has her doubts. "He has never smoked and is as fit as he has ever been," she said.

Laura Brown, 16, who works in the shop and lives in the "blue zone", had to drop some of her GCSE exams after missing seven weeks of the past school year with kidney problems, for which she has been having hospital treatment.

Many villagers are determined to remain, such as the owner of the filling station, Christina Finney, who moved from her native Germany in 1956. A dual carriageway separates her house from the ICI plant, in a "green zone" street where 10 out of 25 houses are empty, including the property next door. "The reading was 0.009ppb, so I'm happy," she said. "It's actually nice and quiet now because all this has forced some rowdies up the road to move on but I'm not happy about the bus service. I need it to get to the shops."

ICI, which acknowledges the threat to Weston's social fabric, says it is working with villagers and Halton Borough Council to provide "additional community facilities". Although a new children's playground is planned, the village noticeboard shows no more evidence of community life than two playgroups. Everyone fears Mr Peacock, whose shop business has suffered, may be the next to go. Mr Merry said: "If they're offered compensation for loss of trade it may be too much to resist. If the shop goes, it really is the end for Weston."