At 11 am on Sunday 13 August Primrose Middleton, a local
resident, noticed that the stream at the bottom of her garden had turned a
reddish pink colour. She immediately called the National Rivers Authority (NRA).
Downstream at 11.15 am local farmer Dudley Canvin discovered dead and dying fish
in his pond. He put straw bales into the water to try and stop the pollution
going beyond his farm. By mid-afternoon emergency services at the site included
the NRA, fire and ambulance and the police. The NRA, using plastic pipes,
diverted the stream over a quarter mile stretch and made good a dam which
contained most of the pollution. The combined actions meant pollution in the
River Cary never exceeded the Environmental Quality Standard for lindane of 0.1
µg/l (parts per billion).
The situation was different in the affected part of the Mill Stream where levels were 920 µg/l of lindane at the height of the problem. Over half a million litres of water were tankered away, most of which was incinerated. In addition, 282 drums containing lindane contaminated soil were removed at a cost of about £400 (US$600) each.
The insecticide lindane has been widely used in agriculture for urban pest control since the 1940s. It is banned and severely restricted in a number of countries and there is a significant body of evidence on its toxic and environmental effects (see PN28, lindane fact sheet). It has caused deaths and poisonings in humans as a result of misuse and the concern over its long term health effects includes a link with carcinogenicity, aplastic anaemia and the birth disorder CHARGE. Lindane is fat soluble and can bioaccumulate in food chains.
At first, people in the area were confused about what exactly had happened. Local resident Dawn Sarginson initially thought ill effects were a result of 'some sort of bug'. Both adults and children suffered diarrhoea, dizziness, lack of co-ordination, stomach cramps, itchy eyes and sore throats, possibly as a result of exposure to lindane. A survey by Somerset Health Commission, in liaison with a team from Guy's Hospital London is being carried out on 1,500 residents in the area.
Before the incident, there was no gate barring access to the site. This proved too tempting for local children. Kevin Sarginson, aged 12, said he and his friends had 'played' with some of the opened insecticide drums on the site which would "fizz when stirred".
At the beginning of June, eight weeks before the incident, another local resident, Bruce Bedford, had gone onto the seed mill site and seen children playing. Mr Bedford saw eight drums of lindane and immediately phoned his local authority, the South Somerset District Council to report the drums. Concerned that he could be accused of trespass, he rang anonymously. However he was told that the council could not help, he would have to phone the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF). But MAFF told him it is only responsible for pesticides stored on farmland-not on disused factory sites. He then tried the agricultural advisory service, ADAS (a MAFF agency), where he was told again "sorry not our responsibility". However ADAS told him that they would refer the matter to the Health and Safety Executive in Taunton. But this body was not responsible either as the site was no longer a working factory.
Only on Friday 4 August, eight weeks after the drums were first reported, was the Waste Regulation Authority at Somerset County Council informed. Officers were sent to the site to investigate the following Monday. They saw the eight drums of lindane and instructed the owner of the site Nick Bond and the demolition contractor Raymond Hake, that because of the nature of the chemicals, they would have to be disposed of by a specialist waste contractor. The officers explained the job could cost up to £3,000 and recommended the council's own waste disposal contractor. A few days later someone put the lindane down a drain(1).
Pollution from the site
Between 13 and 14 August the authorities removed from the mill site about 20 pesticide containers which included lindane and phenyl mercury acetate. Even some time after the incident, levels of pollution in the stream's silt were relatively high, and variable. On 13 October NRA sampling showed levels up to 200 µg/kg in the Mill Stream. Levels of mercury were around 1 mg/kg on average, although one sample contained 33 mg/kg.
Granular activated carbon filter unit specially imported by the NRA from Belgium
Who is responsible?
Under sections 33(1) and (6) of Part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it is an offence to keep or dispose of controlled waste without either a waste management licence or an exemption from licensing. It is also an offence to keep or dispose of controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment of harm to human health. The enforcement for this lies with the Waste Regulations Authority of the county councils.
County councils (as waste regulation authorities) and district councils (as waste collection authorities) have powers under section 59 of the 1990 Act to require the removal of controlled waste which has been deposited in contravention of section 33(1). The South Somerset District Council disputes whether the legislation is applicable in this case. "The district council is peripheral to the major issues in this incident" said council official Patrick Mackie. "We have gone beyond what the law requires of us in fencing off the site and have carried out wide-ranging liaison between the agencies involved. It is our opinion that the pesticides stored on the site did not constitute a nuisance under Part III of the Environmental Protection Act."
In terms of water pollution, it is an offence under section 85 of the Water Resources Act 1991 to cause or knowingly to permit any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter or any solid waste matter to enter any controlled waters. The NRA may bring a prosecution for this offence(2).
For the want of spending £3,000 on proper incineration, at least £500,000 of public money has been spent clearing up after the pollution incident. The lindane and other pesticides could have been disposed of through an amnesty operated during 1991 in which 6,000 farmers handed in old or illegal pesticides. The incident is especially inopportune coming at a time when the water industry has come in for much criticism over its charging systems. The costs to public funds and the dangers to local residents could have been avoided. There may well be compensation claims as a result.
The lessons to be learnt
It is doubtful whether there was sufficient expertise in Somerset to deal with a problem of this nature and residents were concerned that information and advice was slow in coming to them. Many authorities were involved and residents were concerned that there appeared to be too much 'buck passing'. This was because single one authority was responsible for dealing with the incident or acted in the role of co-ordinator. The authorities involved were: ADAS (Agricultural Advisory Service), British Agrochemical Standard Inspection Scheme (BASIS), Health and Safety Executive, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, NRA, Somerset Health Commission, South Somerset District Council, Somerset County Council, Avon and Somerset Police, Emergency Planning Authority, Somerset Fire and Ambulance Services, Somerset Scientific Services, Waste Regulations Authority.
The proposed Environment Agency-possibly to be set up under the Environment Act 1995 next April with enhanced powers-may fill this gap in future, combining the activities of the NRA, Pollution Inspectorate and Waste Regulations. The additional authority of the Agency will enable it to serve notice on potential polluters requiring them to carry out works to prevent or clean up water pollution. "For cases like this I expect a 'one stop agency' like the Environment Agency to be in a better position to resolve the sorts of problems that have arisen," said David Tester of the Toxic and Persistent Substances (TAPS) Centre of the NRA. (DB)
1. You and Yours, BBC Radio 4, 2 October 1995.
2. Letter from Earl Ferrers, Environment Minister of State, to the Countess of Mar 3 November 1995.
The Pesticides Trust [now PAN UK] is grateful to local resident Margaret Chambers, who has been monitoring the incident and the implications for the people of Somerton. She is a community scientist and has received a grant from COPUS (the Committee on Public Understanding of Science) to provide a written account of this pollution incident.
article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 30,
December 1995, page 5]