MoD halts clean-up of poison meadows

Chemical waste: Minister reluctant to approve pounds 1m cost of clearin g 300 toxic shells buried on land behind villagers' gardens
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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have cancelled clearance of hundreds of acres of land contaminated by chemical weapons because they say the work would cost too much.

Buried beneath 350 acres of poppy-strewn fields in East Gomeldon, Wiltshire, lie spent shells and mortars which may contain highly toxic mustard and phosgene gases.

The site was used during both World Wars for artillery practice. About 300 of a total of 2,000 shells are believed to have chemical agents in them. Others may contain explosives.

But despite the fears of villagers whose gardens back on to the 110-acre cereal field and 240 acres of adjacent Wiltshire countryside, ministers are reluctant to approve the pounds 1m cost of clearing the area. The local MP, Robert Key, says the work was due to go ahead last year but emergency planners were told not to go ahead.

The Ministry of Defence is in talks with the Environment Agency about whether there is a danger that the toxins could leak into the water supply. The agency says it does not have any reason to suppose there will be leakage.

John Spellar, the defence minister, has said his department is not funded for clearance work of this sort. In a letter to Mr Key, he said such a large operation would cause a great deal of disturbance and the material might be best left "safely buried".

A spokesman for the department said no final decision had been made.

The job would take a team of 100 Royal Engineers four months to complete. Emergency services would have to be on hand in case of accidents, and special measures would have to be taken to ensure the safety of the local residents. The materials are buried up to six metres deep and the soldiers would have to dig down to six feet to ensure the area was safe.

Mr Key has written to residents alerting them to the problem. The materials, if dug up,could be extremely dangerous, even though many of the shells are spent.

"I find it astonishing that the minister has no doubt about this. We are not just talking about public safety. House prices are also being affected. It's the only news at the moment in the area," Mr Key said.

He quoted the Chief Fire Officer as saying: "I offer no comment on whether the field should or should not be cleared. That is a political decision to be made with the aid of professional judgements and, clearly, the minister has decided to take a gamble that no ordnance will ever be uncovered that will cause a threat to life."

Villagers are disgusted that expense is being used as an excuse not to clear the field. One said: "It's rumoured that the new laboratories at Porton experimental establishment will cost pounds 23m and they are building a pounds 5m defence estate at Winterbourne Gunner."

Wooden pegs which marked the potentially dangerous sites disappeared last week. John Childs, 70, a villager, said the nearest was just 15 metres from his garden fence. "They spent a lot of time there. We didn't know what they were doing. They said they were carrying out a geographical survey," he said.

In September 1996, Rex Bowhill, the farmer who owns the field behind the villagers' gardens, received a letter from the Defence Nuclear Biological and Chemical Centre at Winterbourne Gunner, in Wiltshire. It warned that there was "medium to heavy contamination" beneath the surface of the field and that Mr Bowhill should stop ploughing the land.

Mr Bowhill has always known there was ammunition beneath the surface of his field - because he keeps finding it. "This is the sort of stuff we have brought up," he said, holding an empty shell. "This one looked fairly innocuous so I kept it. I didn't bother getting the bomb disposal out."

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