Lagoons darken village horizon: Residents are enlisting EC help to stave off plans for a sewage sludge repository. William Goodacre reports

ALONG a bleak stretch of the Suffolk coast, on the southern bank of the Alde estuary, the residents of the scattered village of Iken (population: 80) have been waging a battle against Anglian Water for the last 18 months.

They fiercely object to the proposed siting in their midst of a couple of 400,000-gallon sludge lagoons, designed for the recycling of human effluent. They have lobbied organisations from the Suffolk Preservation Society to the Department for the Environment, without persuading Anglian Water to rethink.

It appears, however, that the European Commission may intervene on their behalf. The campaigners have just received a letter from Brussels outlining concerns that the proposal may contravene EC directives designed to prevent pollution.

Allen Heyman, a local resident and lawyer, has studied the relevant EC legislation and considers it to be 'good and tight'. He hopes the involvement of Brussels may cause Anglian Water to think again: 'The EC has a discretion which cannot be avoided in the UK courts.'

Ironically, it was as a result of another EC environmental ruling, the Urban Wastewater Directive, that Anglian Water was forced to consider the construction of the lagoons in the first place.

According to this directive it will no longer be possible after 1998 to dump sludge at sea, which is where, at present, about 10 per cent of Anglian Water's processed sewage ends up.

Glynn Eastman, divisional services manager for Anglian Water, said: 'I can see we're dealing with a highly emotive product here. When people think of sludge, they think of untreated human effluent. In fact, what we're proposing to pump into the lagoons has already been fully broken down at the sewage treatment works.'

Alan Coombes, chairman of the parochial council in Iken, is sympathetic to the principle of recycling sewage and turning potential pollutants into an agricultural resource. What he objects to is the siting of these two sludge lagoons so close to residential dwellings and in the middle of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 'I can see there are strong reasons to build up the body of the arable land in this area, particularly since this sludge is so high in the necessary nitrates. But, as local residents, we have three main objections, First, there is the problem of increased traffic bringing the sludge from the sewage works to the lagoons along some extremely narrow country lanes. Then we are worried about the archaeological implications of the lagoon construction, particularly on one of the sites (St Botolph is thought to have founded a monastery in Iken in the 9th century). Finally there is the problem of smell.'

Anglian Water has agreed to work alongside experts to ensure that no major archaeological finds are missed; it would also build passing places to ease any traffic congestion in the surrounding network of lanes; and it claims there would be no problem with smell. The two sites Anglian Water has identified are a little over 400 metres from the nearest house. According to a special 'permitted right', this is the minimum distance at which certain developments on agricultural land become exempt from the need to apply for planning permission. Mr Coombes, however, sees the proximity to the village as a problem: 'Smells simply do not stop at 400 metres, There definitely will be times with smells.'

The planning exemption has particularly angered several pressure group representatives, including Lady Rachel Bridges, vice-president of the Suffolk Preservation Society. She is confident that, had Anglian Water approached the planning authority it would have been turned down: 'By using their 'permitted right' they have shown contempt for the views of the local people and the wider environmental implications of their lagoons.'

Each side seems to be claiming the environmental high ground. Opponents fear the lagoons will seriously damage the quality of the landscape, while the water company argues the environmental merits of recycling waste, pointing out that those farmers who use sewage sludge are able largely to dispense with the use of chemical fertilisers.

Richard Mann, on whose land the proposed sewage lagoons would be situated, sees the local opposition a little differently: 'They go spouting on about green issues and about organic farming, but the fact is, when it comes down to it, they just don't want to know. They've spent a lot of money buying their weekend retreats, and now they find the thought of these sludge lagoons threatening for their way of life, It's because they're so used to organising people that they think they can come in here and tell us farmers what to do.'

Mr Coombes admits to a certain amount of friction between 'the newcomers' and the traditional farming community: 'Of course, they sold us these places when they were desperate for cash and now they're not, they'd love to get rid of us.'

But he added: 'The more you look into this, the more you see how the proposed lagoons contravene what the Government has stated as good practice.'

(Photograph omitted)