Mustard gas dump hushed up

Ministers have authorised hundreds of Britain's military sites to be checked for dangerous contamination after a series of alarming incidents.

In one of the worst episodes, live and potentially lethal mustard gas bombs were found next to a working factory years after the site was supposed to have been cleaned up. Yet a confidential Ministry of Defence memorandum shows that this was hushed up to avoid "local public reaction" to what it describes as "an extremely sensitive issue".

Pollution of defence land - which, in total, covers an area the size of the Lake District - is still kept secret. Ministers refuse to list the sites which store toxic and radioactive wastes, to give details of dangerous pollutants discharged, or even to describe the extent and cost of clean-up measures.

But Michael Meacher, the shadow environment secretary, has been collecting evidence that he says "suggests that for many decades there has been a significant problem of contamination associated with military bases in the UK".

The official check-up, the first ever systematic survey of the problem, aims to "establish the condition of the individual sites on the defence estate and, where appropriate, make recommendations for, and implementation of remediation". As there are 800 such sites in England and Wales alone, those thought to be most dangerous are being investigated first.

One of these is RAF Barnham, near Thetford in Norfolk, where last year a ministry Estates Office (EOD) team found 17 live mustard gas bombs in an area supposedly "cleared" by the official Property Services Agency many years ago.

An extraordinarily frank internal memorandum, reporting the discovery, signed by Squadron Leader C J Oxland, continues: "As far as we are concerned this is largely a matter of 'wait and see'.

"The most significant problem that we may encounter is local public reaction ... The site is next door to a factory, one of the managers of which is an ex-RAF armourer who the EOD team regard as their biggest threat ... he has just enough knowledge to be dangerous in PR terms."

Chemical warfare experts said last week that the gas would have been extremely dangerous if it had leaked out. The ministry said that the site had now been cleared and was up for sale.

Other incidents collected by Mr Meacher include:

n Pollution by mustard gas and other contaminants at a former Second World War chemicals factory at Mold, Clwyd, now used as a storage depot by the Ministry of Agriculture.

n The closure of 94 acres of woodland at Risley, Berkshire, last year after mustard gas was found to have been dumped there. Contamination by the gas, at 130,000 times above tolerable levels, was found - even though the site had been declared safe by the ministry in 1988.

Other evidence suggests that more than 60 sites across the country are contaminated by the poison gas, which remains active for decades.

Military bases have long enjoyed "Crown immunity", freeing them from possible prosecution by pollution inspectorates or from civil actions for damages. This, critics say, encouraged lax practice.

But pressure on the ministry to come clean is now mounting because military land is increasingly being sold off and privatised.

Mr Meacher says: "The Government is notably reluctant to publicise any information about contamination on military bases. Much relevant information is either secret or inaccessible. It is complacent about problems it has inherited from the past, secretive about current activities, and unsystematic about the collection of vital evidence. National security has been used as a convenient cover for bad practice."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London