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Walley’s Quarry: Response of the Environment Agency

Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 19 May 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maggie Throup.)

I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate. Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I pass my thanks to Mr Speaker not only for granting this debate, but for his advice on the matter of landfills? I know that he has suffered from an issue in his constituency of Chorley as well.

I have raised the issue of Walley’s Quarry many times in this place since I was elected in 2019, including in a debate in Westminster Hall in February 2020, which the Minister will remember, as she responded to me then, and I am grateful for her continued engagement since then—in the Christmas Adjournment debate at the end of last year, and again in the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced on 9 March, the Landfill Sites (Odorous Emissions) Bill. But I am here yet again because I will not stop representing my constituents on this issue, and I am sorry to report to the House that the situation has worsened even further since those prior mentions of Walley’s Quarry in this place.

In Newcastle-under-Lyme, we are now experiencing not only an environmental catastrophe but a public health emergency. My constituents are genuinely frightened about what is in the air they breathe and the impact it is having on their health and the health of their families. They are also pretty angry that it has come to this, as am I on their behalf. In the interests of time, I will not rehearse the whole storied history today, as a lot of it is on the record in the other debates I mentioned. Instead, I will focus on the newest developments and what has happened in recent months.

I would like to stress that this is not really a local issue. Not only is it so big that it is affecting neighbouring constituencies—I am grateful to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) here—but it has now become a national issue, in that Walley’s Quarry generated 85% of all odour complaints in England to the Environment Agency in March. It has also generated national coverage in the newspapers and across the BBC and ITV, and that is because things have moved on considerably this year. There have been five breaches by the operator of its permit, and the Environment Agency has had to issue an enforcement notice, which I will come back to later.

I would like to start by focusing on the impact that this is having on people’s health, and I will quote the letter that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care wrote to the chief executive of the Environment Agency, expressing his “grave concerns” about the current situation, recognising the distress and disruption it is causing to the local community and highlighting how imperative it is that the Environment Agency exercises

“the full range of their regulatory and enforcement powers”

to resolve the problems at the site—a sentiment with which my constituents and I wholeheartedly agree.

I recently conducted a health and impact survey, which I published earlier today on my Facebook page and via my newsletter and Twitter. I had over 1,000 responses in the first 24 hours. The survey is based on over 1,400 responses, and the findings make pretty shocking reading. I shared it with the Minister earlier today, and I have sent it to the various bodies involved. Some 64% of respondents reported a significant or severe impact on their mental health, and that rose to 73% among those living in the areas immediately adjacent to the site: Silverdale, Knutton, Poolfields and Thistleberry. Similarly, 60% of respondents reported a significant or severe impact on their sleep, and 52% said the same about their physical health. Again, the figures are higher for those living closest to the site.

I will quote some of the testimony from residents that I put into the report. Claire from Silverdale says:

“My son is having weekly nose bleeds, my whole family is suffering with dry skin, throat and eyes. We are staying in the house much more than we usually would with the doors and windows shut as the smell outside is horrendous. My heating bill has increased. We only moved into the area in December 2019 and we are greatly regretting this move. We had been saving for 16 years to move into a house like this. It was our dream home and now that has all been ruined.”

Ian from Newcastle says:

“Some days we feel like prisoners in our own home.”

Sandra from Porthill says:

“I have lived in Newcastle for over 30 years and it is frustrating to see this blight causing so many issues and not being able to hold someone responsible for controlling the odour. I’ve shopped in Newcastle town centre for decades and even I don’t want to go there when it stinks.”

Members will understand how difficult this is for me, as a Member of Parliament for Newcastle. We have so much good going on in Newcastle, but a cloud is being cast over us by what is happening at Walley’s Quarry. I have sent the report to the Environment Agency, Public Health England, the borough and county councils, the Secretaries of State concerned and the operator.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the amazing work that he is doing in connection with this landfill site in his constituency and on representing his constituents so fantastically on this issue; I wish him luck with everything he does on it. I, too, have a waste site in my constituency; there has been a fire there for the last three weeks due to illegal dumping on a site that had actually been abandoned. Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be stronger powers for local authorities to intervene when illegal activities are occurring on sites, so that we can better protect our communities in the way he seeks?

I thank my hon. Friend; what is going on in her constituency is also completely unacceptable. I should stress that there are other sites in my constituency—illegal waste dumps—that are causing huge problems: one at Doddlespool and one at Bonnie Braes. Again, the Environment Agency appears to be hidebound and unwilling to act in the face of blatant law breaking by people—in one case, someone who has already been convicted. The problems are not unique to what is going on in Silverdale at this legal quarry.

The health concerns that I was raising a moment ago are not just anecdotal but backed up by evidence from local GPs. Only this morning, a hospital consultant was quoted in the press talking about a particularly heart-rending case of a five-year-old child, Matthew Currie.

I thank my hon. Friend very much for bringing this really important matter to the House. Although the quarry lies within his constituency, the effects are very much felt in Stoke-on-Trent Central, particularly where we border with Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Basford, Hartshill, Penkhull and Trent Vale.

In addition to supporting all my hon. Friend’s comments, I would like to make the Minister aware of a concern raised by the Royal Stoke University Hospital, based in my constituency and only two and a half miles from the quarry, about hydrogen sulphide emanating from the quarry. It has caused a poisonous toxic gas with an eggy smell. I know that my hon. Friend agrees that that is deeply concerning. My constituents and I join him in calling on the Minister to take immediate action, both to mitigate the worrying environmental and public health impacts and to find a lasting solution to the issue.

Order. I did not interrupt the hon. Lady because we are trying to get back to some kind of normality, but I have to make the point that that was a very long intervention—a very interesting one, of course.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for that intervention; I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), neither of whom can be here today. The support I have had from all Stoke MPs on this matter has been greatly appreciated.

I stress the fact that the odour is now reaching into Stoke—up to Talke in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South can smell it in his own house, over six miles away. The problem, if anything, is getting worse. I also have testimony from people who work at the hospital explaining how damaging it is for both patients and staff.

On 27 April, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) held a Westminster Hall debate. It was about air quality in London, but nevertheless 126 of my constituents submitted some really moving testimony; I thank the House of Commons engagement team for providing it to me. Mary wrote:

“The effect on mental health is worrying. Many people feel trapped in their homes, which often are filled with the dreadful stench. Can’t open windows or enjoy going out into gardens. Depression and isolation are quite profound—people are feeling at their wits end and some are expressing suicidal thoughts. We are desperate for it to be resolved.”

Thomas said:

“It’s made me and my whole family physically sick, it’s made my eyes sore to the touch, I cough constantly and live with a headache most of the time. I live with landfill gases that are ruining my life.”

We can agree that no one should have to live like that. They are not exaggerating—I have been out to smell it for myself on many occasions. At 3 am after the election count, I went out on to the Galingale estate, which has the worst of it—it was absolutely appalling. I do not know how anyone woken up by that landfill at that time would get back to sleep again.

The operator and the Environment Agency have been given years of warning about this issue, which has been repeatedly flagged—before I was elected, by campaigners such as Councillor Derrick  Huckfield, by me in this place, and by residents. The concerns were growing. All that has sometimes been dismissed by the operator as a social media campaign; I am sorry to have heard the same at times from the Environment Agency. The problem is real, and I will keep pushing about it until we see stronger and tougher action.

On the Environment Agency, first there was a report before I was elected—a previous monitoring exercise. It was a very weak report that did not even identify the source of the odour, which understandably damaged my constituents’ trust—they know perfectly well where it is coming from. In September last year, I wrote to Sir James Bevan calling for fresh monitoring on the back of the complaints that I was receiving in my inbox. But that was not forthcoming—it was not felt that that would be useful at the time. We can draw a conclusion about where we have got to now; I will explain that in a moment. Had the Environment Agency taken my warnings more seriously back then, perhaps the current crisis could have been forestalled or minimised.

When it comes to the current crisis, I feel that the Environment Agency has been more concerned with its own reputation than with my town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It does not do Silverdale any good to be called the UK’s smelliest village, as it was on 30 April by The Sun. We take no pride in the news coverage that we have generated, but there is a lot of it. We have been covered in The Guardian, The Independent, The Sun, the Sunday Mirror, the Mail on Sunday, Radio 4’s “Today” and the “Jeremy Vine” show, to name just a few.

There are many more positive stories that I would rather be talking about instead—all the investment coming into Newcastle-under-Lyme as we build back better; the future high streets fund; the towns fund; and Newcastle College getting through to the final round of becoming an institute of technology. Those are the stories I want to be talking about in this place. I do not want to be talking about stinking landfill, but I will keep talking about it until we get it sorted.

There have been failings of the Environment Agency over the past year. It eventually did install the monitoring equipment, in February. The installation preceded the worst weekend that we have yet experienced—the weekend of 26 to 28 February. There were over 2,000 complaints to the council that weekend and over 1,400 to the Environment Agency directly. There would have been more, but people could not get through on the lines. However, after that weekend it turned out that the monitoring equipment had not actually been switched on, so there was no record of it, and because the Environment Agency thought it was switched on, it did not send anybody out to substantiate it, so we have no empirical evidence at all to substantiate what I believe was the single worst weekend we have experienced, other than the number of complaints. That is an astonishing dereliction of duty by the Environment Agency. I would laugh if it were not so serious.

The Environment Agency has berated my constituents for all the calls they have made to its call centre. It encouraged people to email instead, but the email address fell over and broke a couple of weekends ago, so people had to go back to calling in again. I am sorry if my constituents’ complaints are inconvenient, but it is imperative that the Environment Agency understands the scale of the problem.

We come to what has happened this year. The Environment Agency did issue an enforcement notice against the operator. It also found five breaches of the permit, one of which was significant, and set a deadline of 30 April for the capping of cell 1 and the temporary capping of cell 2—there are four cells. It was expected—and I was told on a call with the Environment Agency—that those mandated works should bring about a significant improvement in odour levels fairly quickly after 30 April. The operator got the capping done with minutes to spare, but, if anything, since 30 April the opposite has occurred. Indeed, we are getting reports from further away than ever, including places such as Madeley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).

Not unreasonably, the EA’s priority is to address the odour before taking punitive action against the operator. However, 20 days on from that deadline, we have no idea of the action that it intends to take to punish the operator for its many failings. I think that, in advance of that enforcement notice, the operator jumped before it was pushed by voluntarily suspending tipping, but it has now gone back to tipping without any explanation as to why we have so much odour. Why will the Environment Agency not suspend operations until it has figured out what is going on?

The Environment Agency now proudly says that it is auditing the loads before they go into the tip—seemingly for the first time. Six loads have been turned away in the past week. How many similar loads have not been turned away in the past? What exactly is in this landfill? It is hard to believe that it is only now that Red’s customers are sending inappropriate waste to the tip and that this has never happened before.

I will be careful here, Madam Deputy Speaker, but multiple contractors and employees of the company have made allegations to me that I believe are criminal in nature. Investigations are ongoing, so I am not going to repeat those allegations verbatim, but if they are true, Red has serious questions to answer about what has happened in the past at this site. I have passed the allegations on to the Environment Agency’s crime team. I encourage anyone listening to this debate who has evidence that may be important to come forward and discuss it with that environmental crime team, which is separate from the operations team and staffed by former policemen and policewomen. I have had personal assurance from them that they will carefully consider any evidence brought to them, that all allegations will be taken seriously and that they will pursue all credible leads.

As for the operator, it has stopped answering my letters. It did not answer my letter of 22 February or an open letter of 19 March. It will not answer questions that need answers or say what is causing the problem. Either it does not know or it will not say, and I honestly do not know which is worse. It has offered no plan for making things right and compensating those affected. Its communications are a travesty. In fact, the chief method of communication with some of my residents appears to be via lawyers’ letters or a discredited residents association that does not speak for any of the residents in the area. It has refused to publicly stream its liaison committee; understandably, councillors from both parties have felt unable to participate on those terms, given the present crisis.

Instead, the operator has been on its social media celebrating its fast-growing profits and its appearance on The Sunday Times profit track list. In the year to December 2019, it claimed profits of £6 million. I believe that those profits were made at the expense of my constituents’ health and wellbeing, and I hope that the company is setting them aside for remedying the issues with the site and putting things right with the community. It alleges that it has found an alternative explanation for the hydrogen sulphide—disused mineworking—but it cannot or will not corroborate this. It will not even share the basis for these claims with the EA, and the Coal Authority has now said publicly that it has found no evidence at all for this claim.

I can only conclude that the operator is trying to muddy the waters and evade its responsibilities. It misrepresented the Environment Agency by saying that it had consulted it about the resumption of tipping. The Environment Agency had to clarify that it was only notified. To quote the excellent letter that my friend Councillor Alan White, the leader of Staffordshire County Council, sent to the operator on 14 May, “The operator must accept that it has moral responsibilities as well as legal ones.” Finally, in the past month, it has changed its name, from Red Industries RM to Walley’s Quarry Ltd. I am sure that that is because of the damage this is doing to its brand, but I say to it here: it can change its name, but it cannot change the facts of this case, cannot change its culpability and cannot change its liability

Let me come to the data we have seen from the monitoring that has been put in—I am grateful for the monitoring. The 30-minute data—it shows 30 minutes at a time—from the Galingale View monitoring site, which has had the worst of it, showed that in March odour levels were above the World Health Organisation annoyance threshold for 38% of the monitoring period. This was frequently the case at night and in the early evenings, so it was stopping people getting people to sleep or waking them up early. There was a peak of 1,200 micrograms per cubic metre, which is over 160 times the annoyance threshold, which is 7. On that “worst weekend” we had at the end of February the level was probably even higher, but we will never know. As for the 24-hour data, on which the public health test is assessed, there is a much higher limit of 150 over 24 hours, and that was breached twice in March. I do not believe that has ever happened in a landfill in the UK before. Yet the Public Health England commentary on this March data said:

“Based on the current data up to the end of March we would stress that any risk to long-term physical health is likely to be small, however we cannot completely exclude a risk to health from pollutants in the area. Short-term health effects may be experienced such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions may be more susceptible to these effects.”

I am struggling to get my head around PHE thinking that it is okay for people to experience headaches, nausea or dizziness for hours at a time—that is not normal. We have gone from a position that I saw in ministerial written answers last year—that

“the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not be causing annoyance”—

to one now that tacitly accepts not only annoyance, but minor, repeated health issues. That is completely unacceptable; it feels as though we are a lobster being slowly boiled. Residents are supposed to accept the premise that if there are no long-term health consequences, it is somehow acceptable that we have these short-term ones. That is a creeping normalising of a completely unacceptable situation—I believe the modern term is “gaslighting”. We are being gaslit and gassed at the same time.

So what about what the council is doing? Not unreasonably, many constituents have inquired about the possibility of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, ably led by my friend Simon Tagg, acquiring a statutory nuisance or abatement notice. However, as the Minister will know, that is a challenging process. First, it would require a lot of work on the part of council officers to make the case. The council has been hamstrung by the EA’s own failings and it has raised those directly with the Minister in a letter sent yesterday by its chief executive, Martin Hamilton. Nevertheless, the scale of the problems means this is not something the council can ignore and it is moving towards a position of serving an abatement notice, in the light of the suffering of borough residents.

I hope the Secretary of State would give the necessary permission for a prosecution of that abatement notice, should it prove necessary. If the council needs to take that action, it will be because the EA has failed. It should not fall to a borough council to spend £70,000 of local taxpayers’ money on legal advice and landfill experts, or to ask its staff to work around the clock because the performance of a national agency has been so inadequate. Yesterday’s letter, which the Minister will have, requests an independent inquiry into the performance of the EA over the long term, and I completely back the council on that. Why has the EA ignored every warning sign until it was too late? That is not how a responsible regulator should behave.

In conclusion, the message from me and my constituents is clear: enough is enough. Minister, put some extra funding into this emergency situation if necessary and step in if the EA continues to mismanage the situation. It has been repeatedly too slow to react and behind the curve. She should install fresh leadership if that is what is necessary, but we must have an urgent resolution—we cannot carry on like this. As no one, least of all the operator or the regulator, seems to understand the root cause of the problem, there is no reasonable conclusion to the saga of Walley’s Quarry that does not involve it being shut down. Ultimately, the site needs to be capped off.

As ever, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate and thank him for his ongoing work on this issue, which he has been assiduous about in every respect, be it on his website, with his surveys, which we have heard all about, on social media, and in liaising with all those involved and the press. Indeed, he has kept me well informed throughout. I have listened to what he has been saying and had a good look at that survey. I fully sympathise with local residents who have been suffering in the way that he outlines. He painted a very clear picture of what many people have been going through, as have other hon. Friends here tonight.

No landfill will ever be completely odour-free, but odour arising from such operations should not cause serious offence. The environmental permitting system operated by the Environment Agency is there to regulate the waste sector in England. It issues permits, which include requirements for odour management plans, as my hon. Friend knows. The EA sets out guidance on how odour monitoring should be carried out and the required competency of staff and equipment to be used when determining a permit application. The EA considers the proximity of the proposed activity to local residents and sets permit conditions accordingly. Local authorities draw up local plans to identify potential sites for waste facilities and then deal with relevant planning applications. Determination of applications takes account of likely impact of activities, including cumulative impacts on the local environment, communities and the economy.

This landfill site, operated by Walley’s Quarry Ltd, previously known as Red Industries, as has been pointed out, which bought the site from Lafarge in 2016, was given planning permission in 1997 through the call-in process, admittedly in the face of local opposition. At some point, material, possibly unpermitted plasterboard waste, was deposited which is now causing significant odour problems by emitting hydrogen sulphide gas. I think we all remember what that smells like from our chemistry lessons at school. It is the rotting egg smell.

On the EA’s enforcement powers, where an operator is not complying with their permit and there are issues of poor performance, the EA has a series of options at its disposal, from offering advice, guidance, civil sanctions, stop notices, suspension and revocation of the permit. Monitoring odour levels from a landfill is challenging. There are no numerical limits for odour of particular gases in landfill permits. That is due—I asked about this in particular—to the variability of gas composition and how it disperses. The EA, therefore, uses a condition in environmental permits that is based on offence to the senses. The odour is assessed by the level of offence it causes to the EA officer. To demonstrate non-compliance, an EA officer receiving a report of odour will attend the location, confirm the odour is actually coming from the site, and assess whether the site is complying with its odour management plan or doing something that is contrary to best available techniques—that is, the equipment used. This approach has evolved over a number of years following prosecutions and case law derived from those cases. If non-compliance is confirmed, EA officers can take action in line with its enforcement and statutory policy.

In terms of this quarry, as I said, I have huge sympathy for the thousands of residents who have raised complaints. The EA has an absolute priority to reduce odour from the site and it has been working with local partners, including my hon. Friend—I think he will admit that—and the whole community, to sort out the situation. Undoubtedly, the problem has got a lot worse in recent months. From air quality monitoring data from 2017, 2018 and 2019, no World Health Organisation guidelines were exceeded and annoyance levels were only exceeded for about 1% of the time. While EA site visits and monitoring increased in that time, no significant compliance issues were found. However, when complaints escalated significantly in December 2020—my hon. Friend was assiduous in pointing this out—the EA’s activity monitoring at the site did increase. It made 17 visits and nearly 50 odour assessments, so I do not think it is right to suggest that it has not done what it should have done. It has put in a great deal of work. Significant non-compliance issues have been identified and the enforcement notice was issued in March. The EA is using its regulatory powers to the full and complies with the regulators’ code. Four air quality monitoring units have now been installed close to the site and are taking measurements; they will be there at least until the end of August.

The EA is working very closely with Public Health England to understand the health impacts. Data monitoring will obviously be crucial. Public Health England is assessing the situation against World Health Organisation guidelines, looking at the potential health risks. My hon. Friend mentioned the 24-hour period from 7 to 8 March when the concentrations of hydrogen sulphide exceeded the WHO’s 24-hour health-based guidelines. However, Public Health England stated that the analysis

“does not indicate any serious impacts to long-term physical health”,

but fully accepted that

“some people may experience…nausea, headaches or dizziness.”

It recognised that

“persistent, unpleasant odour can affect people’s mental wellbeing”,

which my hon. Friend referred to, and that it can cause stress and anxiety, which is completely understandable—a lot of these points are highlighted in my hon. Friend’s survey. At the moment, air quality monitoring shows that, although the levels of odorous gas around the site are not exceeding the WHO health-based limits, they do regularly exceed the WHO annoyance guidance limits.

I take my hon. Friend’s survey seriously. I also want to flag up that the local authority and Public Health England are now conducting a formal health survey, which I think will be very useful for building that evidence: they can look at my hon. Friend’s survey and add their own data. Details are on the website, and any local resident is encouraged to take part. I think that that will be helpful.

The EA’s enforcement notice, which was issued to the company in March, required it to cap the site with a harmless material to reduce the gas escaping. That was completed within the timescale required. The EA has also required the operator to install further gas management equipment, such as a flare to burn off gas, which is actually being tested this very week. It is assessing a new odour reduction plan and a surface emissions report, which the company is being required to produce. New gas extraction wells have also been installed, so my hon. Friend will agree that a great deal of work is ongoing and it should start to reduce the odours over the next few weeks. It does take a bit of time—it is not instant—so I urge him to give it a bit more time.

In addition, although the operator is now accepting waste, following its voluntary suspension in March, the EA is now actively auditing the waste supply chain to the site to check what is going in. Only waste that is in accordance with the permit is being deposited. The operator has agreed to check every load; indeed, six loads have been stopped and rejected. That is a welcome measure to try to stop any further gas-producing materials such as gypsum getting into the site.

It is quite clear that the levels of H2S, which is usually a minor gas coming out of landfill sites that disappears after a while, are exceptional on this site—that is without doubt. The EA is assessing the evidence from the site to consider what else it could do. It also has a national project under way to better understand the effects that hydrogen sulphide materials such as plasterboard are creating when inappropriately deposited in sites.

I hear my hon. Friend’s vociferous calls for operations to be suspended at the site, but, actually, that would not secure the reduction in the odour of the gas. The changes to the gas management being made at the moment by the operator, overseen by the EA, are the things that ought to help to reduce the gas. The EA’s priority is to reduce the gas, hold the operator to account and bring the site back into compliance.

The EA wants to continue to update its dedicated website on the site. I have looked at all the material that the EA shares with locals. I think my hon. Friend would admit that it has worked very hard on that messaging, and it will continue to do that. That is really important to engage the local community. I am aware that, unfortunately, there has also been some intimidating behaviour towards EA staff and I urge respect where everyone is working together.

I am going to get to my closing remarks—

I have to stop the Minister. It would be useful if she has a final sentence. We are past the time allowed, but it will be somewhat inconclusive if she cannot give her final sentence.

Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought I had until 8.6 pm—I was carefully watching the clock.

I will just summarise. I thank my hon. Friend for his assiduous work. I am keeping my eye on it. We are holding their feet to the fire; we have to reduce the odours from this site. Thank you for your time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will continue to have a really close look at what is going on at this site.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.