For years, families living in a historic Yorkshire market town have put up with “the stink” – a pungent odour emitted from a sewage works near Hull.
But now they’ve had enough. The residents of Hedon and adjacent villages have served notice that they intend to sue the water firm they hold responsible for the foul odour which floats up from nearby Saltend.
Nearly a hundred families have enlisted a firm of solicitors specialising in environmental law in a bid to win compensation for the “misery” they say they have suffered for nearly a decade.
It is the latest in a series of popular challenges across Britain against obnoxious smells emitted by rubbish mountains, landfill tips and even slurry wagons.
“The smell is terrible,” said Michael Adamson, 71, who has lived in his detached bungalow in Hedon for 18 years and is among those making the claim.
“It’s appalling. We have a patio at the back. But we can’t have a barbecue in the summer. It just smells too much. People have signed petitions and have held protests, but it seems the only way to get their attention is to hit them in their wallets.”
Kicking up a stink – what the law says
Homeowners affected by nuisance smells from industrial activity or even their neighbours can ask their local council to take action under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Section 79 of the Act says the council must take “reasonable steps” to investigate the complaint and take action if they believe the offending smell is causing a “statutory nuisance”.
They must first consider whether the smell would be considered unreasonable by an “average” person. An environmental health officer may write to the alleged offender or visit them and, if the smell persists, can issue an abatement notice. Failure to comply with this notice can lead to prosecution.
Homeowners can also take action on their own through the magistrates’ courts under Section 82 of the same Act. They would need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the smell was a nuisance, perhaps by keeping a diary or calling witnesses.
Businesses can defend themselves by proving they are using the “best practical means” to prevent the nuisance.
Campaigners fighting the smell won an abatement order against the plant’s operators, Yorkshire Water, last August after collecting more than 2,000 signatures on a petition. The order, issued by East Riding of Yorkshire Council, gave the firm until this coming summer to stop the bad smells or face a substantial fine.
A report by a council panel last month said that there has been a concentration of complaints in the pea harvesting “peak season” in July and August, when waste from a pea processing centre also added to the waste handled by the site.
It said: “Residents complained that during the peak season, windows had to be closed, garden use and enjoyment curtailed, barbecues and outdoor eating prevented, washing was not able to be hung out, people did not want to go out to walk or job, and going to bed at night with open windows made people feel ill and physically sick when they woke up”.
The panel said it wanted the Government to explore giving Ofwat powers to impose financial penalties on sewage works, as there is currently a gap in the powers available to control water treatment plants.
Complete Guide To: The Yorkshire Dales
Mike Bryan, a member of the council, told The Independent he had been raising the issue of the smell over a number of years.
“If people can’t go out into their gardens to cut their lawns or have a barbecue in summer, it is almost like being in prison,” he said.
“They are confined to their houses. It isn’t fair. It’s disgusting really. I bring it up at the council every year. I just hope we are not still talking about this in three years’ time.”
Environmental solicitors Hugh James, a firm which has dealt with some of the country’s most high-profile environment cases, has now been instructed by families in Hedon and the nearby village of Preston to take legal action.
Gwen Evans, a partner at the firm, said: “The evidence we have seen suggests that residents have been exposed to an unacceptable level of odour from this site.
Yorkshire Water said it could not comment on any potential legal proceedings.
The firm announced in October that it was investing £30m in 50 separate improvements at the water treatment works to “reduce the risk of odours in future” after consulting with experts.
Accepting that the smell was “unacceptable” last summer, it said it would work with local industries to help control the quality of waste water arriving at the site and would also improve how that water is treated.