Thousands of residents living near a waste landfill site in North Staffordshire have said they fear for their long-term health amid the “environmental disaster” after unprecedented levels of hydrogen sulphide gas were recorded near the site.
Red Industries, the company that runs the Walleys Quarry Landfill site near Newcastle-under-Lyme, has been issued with an enforcement notice by the Environment Agency for five breaches of its licence after an investigation brought on by thousands of complaints.
The issue has been ongoing for several years but has suddenly worsened in recent months with complaints about smells and a campaign by the local MP Aaron Bell, forcing the Environment Agency and Public Health England to investigate.
Tory MP Mr Bell said the situation was “unprecedented” and an “environmental disaster for the town” that needed urgent action to safeguard people’s health.
The problem has also affected the nearby Royal Stoke University Hospital where staff have complained about smells affecting the wards there. Local businesses and schools have also complained.
A spokesperson for the University Hospitals of North Midlands Trust said: “Concerns regarding hydrogen sulphide around Royal Stoke University Hospital have been reported to Newcastle Borough Council and the trust is working with the council, Environment Agency and the landfill site operator about these.”
According to the Environment Agency, the levels of hydrogen sulphide detected near the landfill were more than four times higher than any 24-hour reading the agency has carried out at any site since 2014.
Special air monitors placed around the landfill earlier this year recorded levels of the gas that far exceeded recommendations by the World Health Organisation.
According to the WHO, the guideline value for hydrogen sulphide over 24 hours should be 150 micrograms per cubic metre, but near the Walleys Quarry Landfill site, the highest 24-hour recorded concentration was a level of 202 micrograms per cubic metre on 8 March.
Public Health England said it did not expect the exposure to cause any long-term health impacts for local people but has warned people could experience nausea, headaches, dizziness and irritated eyes and airways.
The Environment Agency has given Red Industries until 30 April to improvements to the landfill site, including a permanent cap on parts of the land to prevent gases escaping.
Meanwhile residents say the impact of the odours is affecting their health and daily lives.
There have been thousands of complaints made to the Environment Agency in recent months with the numbers dramatically increasing from almost 400 in September last year, to more than 2,000 in January and 3,600 complaints in February.
Phebe Smith, 24, lives just half a mile from the site. She told The Independent: “For years now, we have been subjected to an intense putrid stench from this landfill which seeps into the house. Over the past few months, it has become so intense that we cannot sleep, breathe and it is affecting not just our physical health but mental wellbeing too.
“We are terrified to breathe this gas in, waiting to see if we will be able to get a night’s sleep without this stench.
“We have been left with headaches, lethargy, nausea and have stinging eyes from the intense stench that fills our homes – this happens every day and night. We are being poisoned in our own homes.”
Another nearby resident Angela Jackson described the smells as being so bad it made her retch.
She added: “We have sore throats, stinging and runny eyes and headaches. I personally am having many more headaches that I have previously had before. I am also having more migraines.”
Jess Slight, who lives just under two miles from the landfill added: “We experience the stink daily. It's hard to explain what it's like, but every morning we wake up and the house is filled with what feels like toxic gas. We are first-time buyers and only moved into this house five weeks ago, in the first week we genuinely thought there was a gas leak as the smell was so strong and nauseating.
“This is now a daily occurrence. Fresh, clean air should be a basic human right. I don't think that's too much to ask.”
Local MP Aaron Bell said he was concerned for the health of his constituents and also criticised the slow actions of the Environment Agency who initially rejected his plea for air monitoring.
He said: “This is the biggest single landfill incident I think the country has seen. This is off the scale. The Environment Agency has committed four out of their 10 monitoring stations to a single site which I think is unprecedented.
“This is clearly having an effect on people's physical health, but also their mental health. I think the Environment Agency took too long to get properly involved with this to install fresh monitoring. I first called for that in September and they didn't install it until February. I think had they installed it earlier, they would have picked up on the numbers more quickly.”
Mr Bell, who has been the subject of complaints made by Red Industries to the Conservative Party, added: “I think the operator is out of their depth, they haven’t responded to my two most recent letters asking to explain the odours. The company's overall attitude has been very defensive and simultaneously quite aggressive.
“This is a major environmental catastrophe for the town. We've got so much investment coming in, but if we have this hanging over the town, quite literally, people aren't going to want to come and shop and eat on our high street.”
Staffordshire County Council said in a statement: “There are ongoing problems of odour in west Newcastle, in the vicinity of Walleys Quarry and further afield. A range of agencies including the Environment Agency, Public Health England, Staffordshire County Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council are working together to monitor and try to remedy the situation.”
Dr Richard Harling, Staffordshire County Council’s director of health, said: “We cannot exclude a risk to health from pollutants in the area, although we would stress any risk to health is likely to be small and short term.”
In a statement, Red Industries said: “We recognise that we are hosted by the local communities in which we operate and are acutely aware of their concerns regarding our landfill operations. We have voluntarily curtailed operations to accelerate an extensive capping programme which will seal a substantial and extensive area of the site.
“This capping programme will continue throughout the remaining life of the quarry, which will stop accepting waste in December 2026, at which point the area will be restored to green field.”
The company added that the landfill was registered for non-hazardous waste, saying: “We do not take hazardous waste. The permit also allows the operation of a treatment plant for the management of leachate [liquid waste] arising from the landfill, and a facility for the extraction of landfill gas for power generation which is subject to independent remote monitoring and control.”
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