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Noxious gas from giant Greater Manchester landfill ruining the lives of residents

The stench of rotting egg can be smelt for miles and is causing serious health problems. Local people want to know what's in the Bury dump, why those in charge have been allowed to break the law and the long-term implications. 

 


 

April 23 2024, 10.53am
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Residents near Pilsworth in Bury have been unable to open their windows, hang out their washing or even let their children play outside due to an overpowering rotten egg stench. They are not alone. The Pilsworth South Landfill in Greater Manchester, a teetering mountain of rubbish, can be smelt in the surrounding regions of Elton, Heywood, Middleton, Radcliffe, and Whitefield, as well as while driving on the M66, even with the car windows closed. 

This problem started in the summer of 2023 when overfilling meant the company had to undertake engineering work in an attempt to reduce the rubbish pile. As a result, the Environment Agency confirmed that operator Valencia Waste Management (who took over from Viridor), which has accepted waste from 200 miles away in Northern Ireland in the past, has breached its licence.         

“My breathing has deteriorated massively and I'm on two different types of inhalers along with steroids,” says Joanna Hewlett who lives 1.5 miles from the landfill and previously worked close by it. “I wake up with headaches every day and I live on Anadin Extra. The nausea can be bad when the gases are strong too.” 

Another affected resident is Hazel Parkinson who lives 2.5 miles away in Heywood. She is concerned about the health implications as well as the contamination of land and water, the effect on house prices and the impact on all other areas of her life. She said: “People no longer wish to visit due to the smell and the gases,” and she is “no longer able to enjoy the outside as the problem exists for miles.” 

“What is well known is that the sort of stress that you get from this sort of insult can have serious chronic health effects.”

Parkinson’s wish is for the landfill to be permanently closed, as well as an investigation into why this has happened. She wants to know what is in the dump, why those in charge have been allowed to break the law, the health and environmental effects, and the long-term implications of it all. 

A spokesperson for Bury Council told The Lead: “It is unacceptable for residents to have to put up with this inconvenience for this amount of time.”    

Inconvenience is an understatement. From September 2023 until the 19th March 2024, 2,694 complaints were lodged with the Environment Agency [EA], with residents continuing to call on a daily basis. A Change.org petition to “Demand Investigation and Public Disclosure of Pilsworth South Landfill Site Operations” which was started by local Labour councillor Angela Brown, has attracted more than 4,000 signatories after a parliamentary petition was declined. The reason given was that it was a local issue to be dealt with by the EA. 

“There are concerns about health implications, wondering if the emissions are having a long-term physical impact and not having the information to make informed decisions about their own health,” said Brown. She noted that the odours have been worse since Valencia Waste Management took over and wonders if these breaches were “intentional.” 

Residents have reported a range of ailments as a result of the landfill - ranging from nausea, headaches, asthma attacks, sore throats, sleeplessness, eye irritation, skin irritation, runny noses, dizziness, stress, and mental health problems. According to Hewlett, there are flies in her home and she won’t buy certain foods from her local supermarket close to the landfill site as they are there too.

The ‘nasal terror’ of Pilsworth Landfill

The dump has achieved such infamy that YouTuber Charles Veitch posted a video from what he called ‘Europe's Smelliest Dump,’ which he captioned as a ‘nasal terror’ to describe the sulphurous smell that emanates from it. This rotten-egg odour that can be smelt for miles around Pilsworth landfill is due to hydrogen sulphide, also known as ‘sewer gas.’ 

“What is well known is that the sort of stress that you get from this sort of insult can have serious chronic health effects,” says Ivan Vince, a waste management consultant and certified expert witness for environmental court cases. He explained that the human nose is more sensitive than we realise so this stress can be triggered by “unbelievably low concentrations.” Vince believes the health impacts of landfills are a “neglected problem.”

The noxious effects of hydrogen sulphide cannot be underestimated. A high court ruling in 2021 found that exposure to this gas was shortening the lifespan of Mathew Richards, a then five-year-old boy living close to the notorious Walleys Quarry landfill in Silverdale, Staffordshire. The court ordered that the hydrogen sulphide be drastically reduced and urged the EA to do more in their “legal duty  to protect Mathew’s life.”

At a Rochdale Council meeting in December, the vote to close the site to more waste so the odour control works could be completed was unanimous. However, bad weather dogged these attempts with January storms tearing through the temporary sheeting that was used to cover the landfill until a more permanent solution could be put in place. 

“Regulations on these sites are not fit for purpose, the environment agency is not funded or equipped to deal with them.” 

The operator is also working to extract the harmful fumes using new gas wells, but these systems are imperfect as they only manage to capture about 65-85% of the gases produced. 

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A spokesperson from the EA confirmed that “the odours appear to have been increased by the operator stripping back the cap of the landfill without seeking our authorisation, leaving the waste exposed. ” 

Since their intervention, they say  90,000 square metres of the legacy waste has been capped as well as 80% of the waste site that is still in use as well as the new wells. They aim to sign off on engineering works within 24 hours to get the remedial work pushed through. They added: “We have every sympathy with the homes and businesses that this issue has affected and would like to thank members of the public who continue to report nuisance odours from the site. ”

When it comes to regulating Valencia following the issues they have created, the EA told us they are taking action. “As well as working closely with residents to minimise the impacts from the site, our officers continue to carry out regulatory inspections and are monitoring the actions being taken by the operator to improve the situation.”

Brown believes there has been an improvement in the smells in her area since the works were undertaken but as the problems remain, so do her concerns: “It does seem to me that regulations on these sites are not fit for purpose, the environment agency is not funded or equipped to deal with them.” 

An ongoing problem

The EA and the UK Health Security Agency [UKHSA] are continuing to monitor the site to try to get the situation under control. However, there have been red flags about operations here prior to the odour nuisance that emerged in 2023.

In 2021, the landfill caught on fire on two occasions - in April and in October - the first of which was declared a ‘major incident’. According to Vince, it is the responsibility of the operator to make sure this never happens. He adds it is “very bad housekeeping or else possibly arson, in which case it's bad security, either way, there should never be fires on landfills. It's inexcusable.” 

No reason for either fire was ever discovered, which he explained was typical of landfills as it is so difficult to find an ignition source, even if investigations are carried out. More recently, there was a fire at another Valencia facility, East Lothian’s Dunbar Landfill in August 2023. The blaze went on for five days and its neighbours are currently having similar odour problems to Pilsworth residents.

A few years before the fires, there was a much-heralded renewable energy station unveiled at the site in 2018. The Pilsworth liquid air energy storage [LAES] plant was a world-first grid-scale liquid air energy storage plant, which was backed by £8 million of government funding. It operated for two years before it was taken out of commission. Nowadays, it has a reduced role as the Pilsworth grid scale demonstrator station and a working plant is being built closer to Manchester instead.

The site has attracted controversy ever since it was a sand quarry when it was criticised for its dust pollution and heavy traffic. However, the area was identified as ‘mineral-rich’, so it was extended from the North side of Pilsworth to the South in 1997. In 2006, the South side was converted to a landfill site, with permission granted to make it bigger in 2012. 

Despite the recent issues, Valencia was still given approval for a new ‘recycling centre’ at a planning meeting in December 2023. Its purpose would be to divert recyclables from received waste to be sent elsewhere. While this has been put through as a temporary measure to be erected on greenbelt land, it is one that could remain. 

Valencia’s other problem landfills

What is happening in Pilsworth and Dunbar are in no way isolated incidents. It is also happening 66 miles away from Bury in Derbyshire at Erin Landfill near Chesterfield, also operated by Valencia Management. Erin was forced to close in February this year as engineering works resulted in odorous gases being released, causing residents similar issues to those in Pilsworth.

Anne-Frances Hayes is a local Labour councillor who has been working on this case since Valencia took over the site in 2022. “Since then the incidences of a foul odour emanating from the site to the villages of Poolsbrook and Duckmanton have become much more frequent and much more serious,” she explains. It was so bad that children at a nearby primary school were unable to play outside. 

“Last year the EA paused their inspections on Britain’s worst waste sites in order to meet their targets, only resuming them again this year.”

Hayes has attended two meetings between residents and representatives of Valencia to address the problem. “The company seems determined, in my opinion, not to take responsibility for the issues and instead lays the responsibility at the feet of the EA,” she adds. As she has been in touch with Brown, Hayes concurs that her problems are “identical,” to those at Pilsworth. 

Valencia’s Shelford Landfill in Canterbury has also had odour issues in recent years and currently has a petition against it for building a new recycling plant using planning permission obtained in 1997. Elsewhere in the country and while it was still Viridor, the operator was fined £3 million after workers Michael Atkin and Mark Wheatley were killed on two of their sites, one in Northamptonshire and one in Devon. The company admitted they had breached health and safety regulations, with both men being crushed to death while at work in 2019 and 2020.

Britain’s landfill problem goes beyond one operator

But it isn’t just Valencia. Residents are fighting similar battles at Fleetwood Landfill in Lancashire, Withyhedge Landfill in Pembrokeshire in Wales, and Clayton Hall Landfill in Lancashire. Granville Landfill at Redhill in Telford is yet another site that had a large fire as well as odour problems. 

In Northern Ireland, a legal case is going to the Supreme Court on the environmental impact of the now-decommissioned Mullaghglass Landfill in County Antrim.

Despite its landmark ruling, problems also remain at Walleys Quarry years later. While these are some of the actively odorous landfills, there have been plenty more that have caused issues for residents in recent history. So much so that last year it was reported that the EA paused their inspections on Britain’s worst waste sites in order to meet their targets, only resuming them again this year. 

As this affects Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as crossing county lines, it seems incumbent for the central government to get involved. Especially as the issue has been raised in Parliament numerous times by both Conservative and Labour MPs. 

This year, Bury South MP Christian Wakeford requested a debate on granting the EA “more teeth,” to deal with operators like Valencia to clamp down on licence breaches. Conservative MP Aaron Bell for Newcastle-under-Lyme said in Parliament last year that his “constituents have been utterly let down,” by the EA because it has “failed to prosecute a rogue operator for the repeated breaches of its permit,” at Walleys Quarry. 

He added that over the previous seven years of monitoring, their equipment “has been grossly under-recording levels of hydrogen sulphide by a factor of approximately two or three.” Sunak responded that he couldn’t comment on that until the criminal investigation into the landfill had been completed. The landfill was eventually given a suspension notice in March this year and the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council is preparing legal action over the operator’s failure to control emissions.

One alternative to landfills is waste-to-energy incinerators. However, the government has temporarily banned new permits for incinerator plants in England after an instruction by Sir Mark Spencer, an Environment Minister working under Environment Secretary Steve Barclay. Barclay was recused as he is currently campaigning to prevent an incinerator being built in his constituency.

“If we do not have other facilities being built, and we do not have proper regulation of landfills, communities like mine across the country will continue to suffer the impacts of landfills,” Brown surmised.

Valencia Waste Management has not responded to a request for comment.

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