London Olympics: a toxic legacy?
mikejwells | July 4, 2007 at 03:04 pmby
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For more than a century the Olympic Park and its surrounding area has been home to what one local history book refers to as “obnoxious industries”. At one time the area employed some 7,500 people in the manufacture of chemicals including everything from arsenic to pesticides. This was an unregulated era when there were few if any restrictions governing the production and dumping of substances, and frequently little knowledge of how dangerous some of these substances were. Agri-chemicals like Agent Orange and DDT were celebrated and seen as a great leap forward. Other dirty industries included at least two companies working with radioactive materials, as well as a small experimental nuclear reactor run by Queen Mary’s College. Not only is the land some of these factories occupied likely to be contaminated, so are the places their waste was dumped.
Inside what will be the Olympic Park is an old landfill site, the former West Ham Tip. On what was the tip now stands the Clays Lane Estate and what was the Eastway Cycle Circuit. In addition to finding a document showing radioactive waste in the form of thorium was buried in the Tip in 1959, Clays Lane residents have recently obtained a second document relating to the burial radioactive waste in the former landfill. It reads:
“In 1953 radioactive material resulting from the demolition of a local chemical works was buried in 40 gallon drums on the site”.
Both the cycle circuit and the Clays Lane Estate are being compulsorily purchased for the Olympic Park. The former cycle circuit is now in the Olympic Delivery Authority’s hands and works have started there to clean up the site. There are however, residents still living on the Clays Lane Estate and the work on the cycle track section of the tip is causing large amounts of dust. The “clean up” of this site seems to be a very dirty operation.
Chris Busby who has been acting as an expert witness for Clays Lane residents comments on the site investigations already carried out on this land …
“if there is documentary evidence of the disposal of Thorium waste at the site, then this has to be taken seriously as Thorium dust represents a serious radiological inhalation hazard. I note that the quantities of Thorium involved do not seem to be known.
Second, any attempt to look for the material by drilling random holes and examining material with a Geiger counter will not result in evidence that the material is not there. Increased levels of radioactivity detected with a Geiger counter have to be interpreted since the radiation may be from other sources e.g. radon. What is needed is systematic boring of holes at 1 metre grid with examination of the holes at different depths with a gamma spectrometer probe (e.g. NaI(Tl)) so that the distinctive Thorium signal can be searched for. Unless this is done, it would, in my opinion, be unsafe to disturb the soil: the result could involve dispersion of dust which represents a significant hazard to local inhabitants or workers.”
Residents of Clays Lane have also obtained results from an analysis recently carried out by the Environment Agency, which shows higher than normal levels of thorium in the River Lee, which runs alongside the former tip. Though the levels of thorium in the Lee are not dangerous the fact that is it there at all presents the possibility that the material has leached out of the former landfill site and that there are dangerous amounts of thorium in the tip itself.
John Large another expert on contamination argues that the fact that the evidence of radioactive waste dumped in 1953 and 1959 should act as a warning that other unrecorded waste is likely to be buried on the site. He also comments that there is likely to be a high level of risk from other non-radioactive contaminants in the former landfill. The area’s history as a centre of chemicals manufacture would support this notion.
With all this evidence one would assume, for the safety of workers and residents, that works on the site would be carried out with extreme caution. However, this is not what appears to be happening. Since invasive ground work started some months ago large amounts of dust have been blowing around and off the site. In high winds it is likely this dust is carried miles away.
Julian Cheyne a local resident has filed complaints about this problem with all the relevant agencies. One of the replies he received from the Health and Safety Executive reads as follows:
Dust - the point here is that the workers are much closer to any dust generated and are at risk of breathing far higher concentrations than anyone else. While we would not tolerate members of the public being exposed to levels of hazardous dust 'accepted' as upper limits for occupational purposes we would clearly expect exposure levels for the general public to be very much lower as they are further away form the source (dilution increases with distance). In this case however, we do not have evidence of the dust being such as to pose any current hazard to workers so it is right that the local authority continues to take the lead on this matter. We have agreed that approach with LB Newham.
Radioactive contamination - as no intrusive work is being undertaken yet in the areas identified from studies the issue of exposure to workers or others in the area should not arise”
There are a number of problems with the HSE’s response. The first is that the quantity of dust is significant, and the proximity of people on the Clays Lane Estate means that they can be within 50 metres of dust causing operations. It seems alarming that the HSE is apparently accepting an increased level of risk for workers on the site. The HSE’s assertion that they do not have evidence that the dust on the site is hazardous seems inexplicable. There is evidence that the land being worked is contaminated. It is a simple matter of logic that dust caused by works on contaminated land will be contaminated, and hence hazardous. Indeed it is difficult to see how dust caused by works on an old landfill site of this era cannot be hazardous. When evidence is found that the dust is hazardous it is likely to come in the form of health problems for workers and anyone downwind of the site. This would be too late. The London Development Agency have themselves declared the area as ‘high risk of risk’ of finding contaminants harmful to human health. To complicate matters further any health problems caused by works on this site may not manifest until some years after exposure. Some measures are in place to reduce the amount of dust produced. A tractor towing a water sprinkler runs over the land occasionally. However this seems haphazard and inadequate. The tractor has been seen parked up and unused while machines on site continue to kick up dust.
The HSE does not appear to have drawn sensible conclusions from the evidence it is in possession of. The HSE clearly believes that the waste dumped in 1959 is in the same place now, as at the time of burial. This is not a safe conclusion, as on these old landfill sites, material was pushed around by bulldozers on a continuous basis. Another concern is that a second document shows that radioactive waste was also buried on site in 1953 and no position has so far been determined for this. Before 1964 there were no regulations on the disposal of radioactive waste. This is why John Large asserts that where there is evidence of one or more cases of buried radioactive waste there is likely to be more. There were two companies within a few miles of the West Ham Tip working with radioactive material. One of them was a gas mantle manufacturer. Thorium was used in the manufacture of gas mantles and it is easy to see that quantities of damaged mantles may well have been dumped in the West Ham Tip over a period of years. The HSE’s comments on the radioactive contamination of the site indicate that it has failed to grasp the risk such a site is likely to pose. The HSE should take note of the comments made by experts in the field, John Large and Chris Busby.
They should also take note of a DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) document called “Industry Profiles”, which warns that the use of radioactive materials was “historically more widespread than at present”, and that local cottage industries using radioactive materials could well have deposited these in household waste. The same document also warns of the dangers of unregulated radioactive deposits from this period and states these tips are “likely to have the greatest potential for unregulated radioactive contamination”.
However, as John Large comments, it is not only the danger of radioactive particles in the dust produced on site but also other chemical contaminants. However it appears that contractors are conducting works on the former landfill with limited oversight. The HSE officer with responsibility for the site admitted in an email to Mr Cheyne that he had not been onsite for some months. One of the problems is that the Borough of Newham probably should have declared the former tip a “special site” under the relevant legislation. It would then come under greater scrutiny from the HSE. However, for Newham, this could mean admitting that they had made an error over the level of toxicity of the site and could leave them open to litigation.
The political and financial pressures to deliver the Olympic Park on time, makes it plausible that the LDA and politicians may see this as a kind of emergency situation, and that leads to the question of whether standards are to be kept or corners are to be cut? From the evidence so far corner cutting appears to be the mode of operation. Lack of transparency is also a serious issue, as an article in New Civil Engineer (1st March 2007) comments … “contractors have been banned from talking to the press [about contamination] by their client the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).” Also staff on the site who have been taking soil samples never know the results of the analysis as the samples are bagged up and taken off site to laboratories for testing.
Because of concerns over the potential risks to health one resident of Clays Lane has been trying to obtain a court injunction to halt work on the Olympic site near the estate. However, the legal action stalled when a strong case for Legal Aid was refused. Bill Parry-Davies, the resident’s solicitor, said “the refusal of legal aid here seems to conflict with the established guidelines for dealing with cases where there is a wider public benefit, namely where other local residents would also benefit from the protection of an injunction to prevent the risk of contamination until they are rehoused elsewhere”. He goes on to note that the Legal Aid Appeal Committee described the case as “thoroughly prepared and forcefully put” and comments the subsequent rejection of the application was “surprising”. There has been speculation at Clays Lane over the possibility that the LAC could have been politically influenced.
The ODA do not appear to be dealing with the issue of contamination openly. In July the Olympic construction site will be closed off and surrounded by hoardings and will effectively turned into a no go zone, hence public scrutiny controlled by the ODA. The site will be huge, with a perimeter of around18km. There are many old factory sites and dumping grounds within the Olympic construction zone, which are also contaminated. Hence dust-making operations are likely to increase as the project gains momentum. The clean up of the Olympic Park appears to be a dirty operation and in future months and years, if this problems is not dealt with properly, it is possible the health of thousands of people will be adversely affected.
Not discussed in the article but also of concern is the issue of the possible contamination of ground water caused by these works.
More4 recently carried a feature on the issues in this article below is a link to this:
also see link to Low Level Radiation Campaign website particularly section on dose: