Council pays £4m to toxic waste victims

Mistakes in clean-up of former British Steel site saw children born without fingers
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The Independent Online

The families of children born fingerless or with webbed hands and feet have won up to £4m in compensation for birth defects which they claim were caused by a council's mismanagement of toxic waste dumps.

The award brings to an end an 11-year court battle to force Corby Borough Council to compensate the children. In yesterday's confidential agreement, signed between the families of 19 children and the council, the total payout is estimated to be between £3m and £4m.

Speaking after the announcement, Louise Carley, 35, whose daughter Ashleigh Custance, now 11, has problems with her right hand and arm, said: "I'm relieved. This is closure, it means we can move on with our lives. We know what happened and we know why and we can get on with our future."

She said that although the money could never make up for the difficulties they had experienced, it would help for future care and treatment. "It's the first time they have said sorry," she said. "That means more than anything. It's the fact it's not my fault any more. That's what puts closure on it, the apology means more than anything."

Sarah Pearson, mother of 15-year-old Lewis Waterfield, who was born with significant deformities affecting both hands, said: "We are just so relieved our fight is finally at an end."

Corby became a steel-making centre in the 1930s and by 1960 and was one of the most heavily industrialised areas in the Midlands. In the early 1980s, the industry became unprofitable and British Steel closed the site, leaving the local council to take care of the clean-up operation.

In a landmark High Court ruling last July, Corby Borough Council was found negligent in its management of toxic waste at the former steelworks site in the town during the 1980s and 1990s. The council had denied it was negligent and that there was a link between the removal of waste to a quarry north of the site and deformities affecting hands and feet.

But Mr Justice Akenhead found there was a "statistically significant" cluster of birth defects between 1989 and 1999. The council had previously said it would fight the ruling, but yesterday agreed to drop its challenge, although it continues to deny legal liability.

Des Collins, solicitor for the families involved, said they were relieved the case was over. "My clients live with the daily reminder of the sub-standard clean-up of the former British Steel plant in Corby. Of course, no financial sum can properly compensate for their lifelong deformities and disabilities," he said.

"This agreement recognises the many years of emotional and physical suffering the 19 families have endured and will continue to endure. Importantly, it also provides a financial award which will help towards the healthcare costs and loss of earnings they will inevitably face in the future."

Corby Borough Council chief executive Chris Mallender said: "The council recognises that it made mistakes in its clean-up of the former British Steel site years ago and extends its deepest sympathy to the children and their families.

"Although I accept that money cannot properly compensate these young people for their disabilities and for all that they have suffered to date and their problems in the future, the council sincerely hopes that this apology coupled with the agreement will mean that they can now put their legal battle behind them and proceed with their lives with a greater degree of financial certainty."

Mr Collins said he hoped their experience in the case would benefit others in the future who had to consider environmental and public health risks from the reclamation of hazardous sites. He added: "The families are grateful for the apology and expression of good wishes from Mr Mallender."

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