The Walleys Quarry site has generated more than 10,000 complaints from people living nearby with fears for the health of residents raised by local doctors and GPs as well as health secretary Matt Hancock who has called for action after a campaign by local MP Aaron Bell.
The chief executive of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has written to ministers demanding an inquiry into the performance of the Environment Agency and whether it had acted quickly enough over fumes at the Walleys Quarry site in north Staffordshire, which has triggered thousands of complaints.
In the letter Martin Hamilton said the levels of hydrogen sulphide at the site were at dangerous levels, four times greater than levels thought to be fatal, in May 2020. He suggested this could mean waste that is not permitted at the site has been dumped there.
Public Health England has said it is concerned by reports local people are experiencing ill health effects from the fumes, which at one point in March were above limits set by the World Health Organisation.
In his letter to junior minister Rebecca Pow at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Mr Hamilton said the council wanted an “independent investigation” into the “historic approach taken by the Environment Agency which we believe has caused our residents and businesses to suffer the consequences of pollution from the site for much longer than necessary.
“The scale of this issue is such that, in my view, Defra really ought to be concerned to properly understand how the situation at Walleys Quarry has been allowed to develop.”
He said the annual monitoring report produced by Red Industries, which runs the site, showed concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in May 2020 at 4610 parts per million.
He added: “For context, 20ppm will cause eye irritation and levels over 1000ppm can cause death.”
Such levels should have triggered action by the Environment Agency he said, adding: “It is clear from the 2020 report that there is a high concentration of sulphuretted compounds within the landfill gas and also soluble sulphate in the leachate samples taken at the site. This all points to the site containing waste with a significate sulphate content which would not be in line with its permit.”
The landfill was served with an enforcement notice by the Environment Agency earlier this year and given a deadline of 30 April to cap parts of the site to reduce smells. But Mr Hamilton said this had not worked. He said the number of complaints from residents in May was set to match the 3,400 received in April.
“I ask again, on behalf of the council, that you consider tasking your department with undertaking a full review of the regulatory performance of the Environment Agency in regard to Walleys Quarry.”
Local MP Aaron Bell has led efforts to force the company to take action on the site and had secured an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday night.
The Conservative MP said: “We are now experiencing not only an environmental catastrophe, but a public health emergency. From the responses to my survey it is clear my constituents are genuinely frightened about what they are breathing in and are devastated by the impact that living with the intolerable odour is having on them and their families.
“The Environment Agency have been too slow to react to this crisis and the odour is persisting even after their recent enforcement actions. Clearly neither they nor the operator fully understand why the site is producing so much landfill gas and it is baffling that the operator have resumed tipping operations whilst the reasons for the strength of the odour remain unexplained.”
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “We’ve seen the letter sent by the council to Minister Pow, and we would like to be clear that the levels of hydrogen sulphide quoted is for a measurement inside one of the landfill gas system pipes, not in the atmosphere. The levels quoted in the letter are not unusual for this type of in-pipe measurement taken from landfills in this country.
“We know the information in the letter will frighten the community who have already been through so much and continue to live with this odour.”
They added the agency was working hard to hold the landfill company to account.
“We are sorry that the community are continuing to experience odour from Walleys Quarry. We can only work within the current government legislation and it will take time to bring the operator into compliance. This is not because we are not doing anything, or don’t care, it’s because, like anything involving legal processes, we have to ensure it is right and will be successful.”
A spokesperson for Defra said it sympathised with local people and would respond to the letter in due course.