Burying The Truth, the orginal Ecologist investigation into Monsanto and Brofiscin Quarry
Jon Hughes & Pat Thomas
11th October, 2007
What does Douglas Gowan know that everyone else wants to keep hidden? For 40 years the story of Brofiscin Quarry – now the most polluted place in the UK – has been suppressed...
For 40 years the story of Brofiscin Quarry – now the most polluted place in the UK – has been suppressed. Documents have been mysteriously lost, witnesses silenced, scientific data ignored. But like the periodic explosions that issue from the depth of the quarry, the truth has a way of blowing up in our faces. Jon Hughes and Pat Thomas report.
Witness protection schemes are normally the preserve of supergrasses or The Sopranos, not people who volunteer evidence in response to a public appeal from a government agency. But that is the position 64-year-old Douglas Gowan finds himself in, having spent the past six months living under police protection.
Since volunteering his evidence to the Environment Agency in early 2006 this retired corporate finance director has been subject to death threats, threatening callers to his door and numerous attempted break- ins. Consequently, at the turn of April his protection officers began to talk of placing him under witness protection.
Palpably Gowan knows something that someone, somewhere, wants suppressed. His misfortune is to be the sole surviving eyewitness who is prepared to speak out about Monsanto’s cavalier disposal of a number of highly toxic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), in at least two Welsh quarries in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
If his evidence continues to be ignored, Monsanto could escape its liability for dumping thousands of tonnes of highly toxic wastes when they knew that this material posed a long-term lethal threat to public health and the environment.
It’s certainly not the retirement Gowan planned when he returned to England from the USA in 1999. First he had a bad accident that left him disabled, and which has now led to another connection with Monsanto – high levels of PCBs have been found in his body tissues. Then, having decided to settle in a small village outside Norwich, it has become anything but the idyll he had hoped it would.
Here was a place he had purposefully identified as somewhere he could receive medical help while indulging his passion for classical music – and, indeed, he launched a series of classical concert seasons that have been a resounding success.
His life seemed increasingly rewarding until late in 2005 when he took a trip down memory lane via an internet search engine. He typed in ‘Brofiscin’, the name of a quarry in the Taff region of South Wales, and came across an appeal from the Environment Agency for people with historical knowledge of the quarry to come forward.
Gowan knows more than most about this quarry. He’d first gone there in 1967, two years after it had become a landfill site primarily taking chemical wastes from the nearby Monsanto chemical plant in Newport.
His evidence is compelling and is contained in his contemporaneous sworn affidavit to the District Registry of the High Court in Cardiff and his report into pollution at the site. Gowan swore his affidavit on behalf of farmers in the area, having spent six years investigating the pollution of the quarries, initially on behalf of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and latterly as an expert pollution consultant retained by the NFU and instructed by Geldards, now one of the country’s leading regional firms of solicitors.
Yet the Environment Agency and its consultants, world-renowned environmental engineers, Atkins, are refusing to consider it.
The question that has to be asked is: why?
The answer lies in events that unfolded over a seven-year period between 1967 and 1973, as the ‘summer of love began to morph into the ‘winter of discontent’. The times they were a-changing. Businesses and unions were involved in an increasingly acrimonious showdown. Inflation was rife. Unemployment was rising. Both the Labour and the Tory governments struggled to reconcile the demise of traditional industries with the promise of the white heat of technology, of which PCBs were an integral part.
Simultaneously they were addressing the increasingly evident problem of environmental pollution caused by industry, which led to The Control of Pollution Act 1974, to protect air and water.
Into the midst of this political and social turmoil arrived the 24-year-old Gowan, who in 1967 took up the post of Assistant Parliamentary Secretary at the National Farmers Union. The only way to understand the ordeal he is living through today is to revisit events then, as they reveal one of the biggest environmental crimes ever to have occurred in the U.K. A crime that no one, seemingly, wants to prosecute.
In 1967 Gowan’s brief was to offer the union’s members (in those days there were 180,000 of them) advice on legal and financial issues relating to environmental concerns – an increasingly hot topic at the time – when he got the call from the Glanmorgan NFU.
Farmers in the area around Brofiscin and Marndy quarries near Pontypridd were reporting mysterious deaths and abortions among their livestock. Arriving at Brofiscin Farm to investigate, the owner Gwilym Miles took him into a field where he was shown a stricken cow – one of a prize winning herd of 60. The cow was listless, flaccid, and unable to stand. Gowan was then taken to a barn where he was shown an aborted calf – it had no ears, no tail and one leg was a stump.
The local vet confirmed to Gowan that it was one of several similar deaths among the herd and that an autopsy had shown that the dead cattle all had lethargy, an inflammation of the stomach lining and liver. This was confirmed by the ministry vet and led to the local abattoir in Cardiff monitoring cattle from the farm, with a view to condemning those showing such symptoms.
At nearby Maendy Quarry similar deaths and abortions had been occurring in sheep, having also initially shown a loss of muscle control. All were baffled as to what was causing the deaths – it was beyond their experience. While reported symptoms were the same, there was no clear pattern of deaths to indicate disease or mass fatality to suggest one-off poisoning.
Shocked by what he had seen, something else struck Gown – the sickly, sweet smell in the air. He was also alarmed by the foaming yellow and purple liquid he could see streaming from he quarry into the ditches and streams across the land. After consultations at the NFU he was given the go-ahead by the Union to investigate further. He was to concentrate on Brofiscin Quarry and the surrounding area due to the regular cattle deaths, abortions and reproductive problems being experienced on Miles’ farm.
The quarries at Brofiscin and Maendy had become landfill sites in 1965 and 1966 respectively. Planning permission for Brofiscin had been granted against the advice of the local Llantrisant council’s planners, Gowan was to learn, and the go-ahead was only given with a series of conditions to preclude the dumping of wastes that could interfere with the watercourses or groundwater, or the environment. Throughout the Fifties, protection of the increasingly absurd waterways has been an increasingly political hot potato, which led, in 1963, to the passing of The Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1961.
Monsanto fell foul of this new legislation. The company’s Newpoty plant had been routinely dumping chemical wastes into the River Severn and public waterways and sewers. Internal memos from Monsanto record that at least 3.4lb of PCB wastes were daily being dumped into the sewers. Criticised in the press, and beset by a parallel situation looming large at its now infamous US plant in Anniston, Alabama, Monsanto looked for a new way to deal with its burgeoning waste problem. This was a case of swings and roundabouts for the global company; as its problems at home intensified it ramped up production of PCBs in the UK.
It sought out and employed a local Bridgend haulage company Industrial Waste Disposal South Wales Ltd (IWD) to clear its wastes. IWD, with Monsanto’s assistance, identified the sites at Brofiscin and Maendy, secured planning permission and swung into operation. Despite both quarries being permeable – Brofiscin is limestone and Maendy sandstone – neither was lined nor capped against rainfall. Problems soon materialised.
Within months, the owner of Brofiscin, a reclusive spinster known only as Miss Morgan, told Gowan that she started to receive complaints from villagers in nearby Grosfaen about the strong phenolic smell coming from the quarry. In 1967, when the cattle deaths began to occur, Gwilym Miles had also complained to her of fiery coloured liquids entering the stream on his land. Gowan ascertained that the fresh water shrimp in the stream were dead or dying.
Complaints to the council from the public led it to threaten to withdraw IWD’s permission to continue using Brofiscin as a landfill site. It is understood by Gowan that they were persuaded to shelve such action when IWD informed them that there was to be a planned ‘asset sale’, which meant that the company would cease trading and therefore dumping.
However, IWD was bought in 1968 as a going concern by Purle Brothers (Holdings) Ltd, which meant the opposite happened – wastes from Monsanto’s Newport plant continued to be dumped in the quarries until 1972.
Suspecting what was deliberately being released from the quarry onto Miles’ land by overflow, and later through manmade trenches, was one thing, but Gowan still had to prove it. In 1968 he instructed civil engineers Pick Everard Keay and Gimson, and the ICI lab at Brixham to undertake tests. To confirm the source, samples were taken of surface liquids in the quarry, at the natural and man-made outflows onto Miles’ fields, and at wells and springs on the farm.
ICI’s analysis identified the presence of PCBs and numerous other carcinogenic chemicals (see A Dangerous Mix?, below). By late autumn 1968, a number of the Aroclors (the trade name for PCBs) had been identified: 1254, 1260 and 1242, of which we now know 1254 is the most lethal to public health and the food chain. The results were shared with Monsanto’s UK scientist Herbert Vodden and Purle’s chemist Henry Pullen, who confirmed to Gowan that the PCBs were manufactured at Monsanto’s Newport plant.
Little was publicly known about the adverse effects of PCBs at this time, and what was known had been discovered by Monsanto and kept secret. Company papers subsequently released in America show that for more than 30 years Monsanto had sat on lab tests results that showed PCBs were fatal to rats and other animals, causing exactly the symptoms and deaths that been seen in the Brofiscin cattle. Vodden, as Monsanto’s chief UK chemist should have known this, but if he did the information wasn’t shared with Gowan, who was left to find the link himself.
Gowan, having initiated sampling both on a regular basis, to identify the nature of the problem, and a crisis basis in response to livestock deaths and heavy rains, when the problems became more evident, became a regular visitor to the site.
Consequently he witnessed trucks and tankers bearing both IWD/Purle and Monsanto logos dumping sands, slurry, liquids and tars as well as packages of resin cake, crystalline solids and open drums into the quarry. Sporadically he witnessed night-time dumping.
Gowan shared his interim results with the CEO and chairman of Purle Brothers, Tony Morgan, and voiced his suspicion that the livestock deaths were being caused by what was being dumped in the quarry. Morgan expressed concern but seemingly considered it more of an operational problem, directing Gowan to Purle’s counsel Richard Hawkins.
Furthermore investigative reports and sediment, stream, milk and surface water and animal tissue samples were shared with the Water Research Centre, the Government Chemist, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and their Veterinary Investigation Unit, as well as with the Royal Veterinary College, the Glamorgan River Authority and the Welsh Office.
Gowan was in constant, almost daily contact, with toxicology experts around the world, including world-renowned forensic toxicologist Professor EGC Clarke at the Royal Veterinary College and Dr Gil Veith at the National Water Quality Laboratories in Duluth.
Both these experts were supplied with frozen tissue samples from the dead cattle as analysis had found no known cause of death. Veith and ICI found high levels of PCBs in the tissue but could not specify which type. No recognised poisons were found. Clarke ran a series of experiments where he fed mice Brofiscin stream water; the result was that around 60 per cent died and the rest fell ill. Autopsies revealed tumours in the liver. Again, these reports were openly shared but no action was taken to remediate the quarry.
Privately however, Purle and Monsanto seemed to be concerned. Maendy Quarry is bisected by a road and having filled one half, dumping was soon due to begin on the other. Purle advised Gowan that before that began, the new site would be lined to prevent leaching of its contents into the environment.
This unnerved Gowan. If Purle and Monsanto felt that the sandstone Maendy quarry required lining – at no little expense – to stop percolation, then he considered that meant they must know that what was being dumped in the limestone Brofiscin quarry was a hazard to the environment.
In March 1969 Purle were dumping into the site on a daily basis and in wet but not stormy weather Gowan’s tests found about 500 gallons per hour of foaming yellow discharge with an average biological oxygen demand of 2400 parts per million (ppm). BOD provides a snapshot of the quality of a body of water – generally 10 ppm is considered very polluted. Phenols at 20ppm and PCBs at about 5ppm, but sometimes at levels of 50ppm, were present in the water being released onto Miles’ land and through the ditches and streams that served it. PCBs at five parts per million is today recognised as the lethal dose.
In his final consultant’s report – replete with technical attachments detailing his expert analysis and opinion – delivered to Geldards, the NFU, Country Landowner’s Association, Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF), Department of Environment, Welsh Office, Rothampstead Research Centre, Water Research Centre and Government Chemist in January 1973, Gowan recorded finding up to 11 contaminants in the water, including PCBs at 15-20ppm. The Environment Agency Wales has told Gowan it has been unable to locate any of these documents.
As evidence mounted regarding the dangers of PCBs, Purle and Monsanto remained unmoved, employing the tactic of ‘sound science’ that is all too prevalent today over climate change. As long as there was no conclusive proof and no direct identification of the single killer ingredient, reasonable doubt remained to justify continued use of the dump. The situation changed when the Sunday Times Insight team launched an investigation into environmental pollution and journalist Peter Pringle started to visit the site with Gowan. The public health and environmental catastrophe that was unfolding in Anniston, where Monsanto had flushed its PCB wastes into the public waterways and dumped it in unprotected holes in the ground, had awakened interest.
Pringle’s reports caused heightened public anxiety and led to a pause in the dumping in 1970. Purle halted operations to allow the regarding of the quarry floor and the construction of an earth dam, to contain the polluted water. The operation was unsuccessful. The quarry floor is around four metres above the water table, which meant any liquids would soon be forced out through underground streams and springs and simply back to the surface in wet weather. The dam only served to force the water onto Miles’ land.
The publicity also drove Monsanto out into the open. They began to conduct their own tests at their Ruabon lab under the direction of Vodden. The company was also in discussion with the government, the Welsh Agency and MAFF Veterinary Investigators about the situation at Brofiscin and it was reported in The Times that they held local public meetings to address community concerns.
The flooding of Miles’ land continued; in dry weather through the underground springs and aquifers and in wet weather overland. Indeed from the end of 1970 and through 1971 ditches were dug onto Miles’ land with increasing regularity by quarry operatives to enable dumping to continue.
Such was the accumulation of surface water that trucks and tankers were otherwise unable to traverse the site and deliver their loads. On one visit the quarry floor gave way beneath Gowan and he sank up to his waste in a toxic soup. He received burns and skin irritation that required hospital treatment.
Having already moved his cattle to rented fields on the advice of Gowan, Miles was eventually forced to reduce his herd by 50 per cent due to the ongoing pollution.
As Gowan pressed his clients’ case in late 1971, the issue of remediation became clouded by a potential merger between Purle Brothers and the multinational conglomerate, Redland. This was a complex business deal involving the merchant bank, Close Brothers, and other City interests.
Whatever the reason, efforts to silence Gowan were redoubled. On site he was verbally and physically intimidated and on occasion his sampling equipment was vandalised. There was an attempt to bribe him. When that failed he was badly beaten, suffering broken ribs. These incidents were reported to the police – and the results of the beating were witnessed that night and the next day by the late Peter Cadbury, and other friends, and the late Brynmor John MP. No-one was ever arrested or charged with any assault in connection with this attack.
Toward the end of 1971, on three occasions, channels were again cut between the quarry and Miles’ land and millions of gallons of contaminated water released. Despite still suffering from broken ribs, Gowan went to the site and witnessed one of these events himself; flow measurements, samples and photographs were all taken indicating that one and half million gallons of liquid wastes had been released during this one incident.
Despite his protestations, Purle representatives seemed unrepentant and refused to consider remediation. Then, in early 1972, the company performed a volte face and called a site meeting. Present were Morgan and Hawkins of Purle, Vodden of Monsanto, Gowan, Robin Geldard CBE; the Welsh Office; the Glamorgan River Authority; and representatives of the Department of Environment and MAFF. Monsanto and Purle admitted the site was a real problem and unveiled a three phase remediation plan to make it safe. The companies accepted 50/50 liability for the cost.
What was proposed included the immediate erection of stock proof fencing around the perimeter and a gate to prevent public access and ensure security and the immediate grading of the quarry surface. They also proposed digging a catchment trench around the perimeter to catch any runoff, and then pump the runoff weekly to a tanker that would take away these surface discharges. The tanker would remove the contaminated liquid to an appropriate place, which was not identified. It was also suggested that Monsanto and Purle would dig a compartmented lagoon to provide an aerobic treatment system, using aerators, following on primary settlement and filtration, with the final liquids and settled solids again being tankered away.
Costly then, and even more costly now. Two days later Gowan was invited to attend Purle’s solicitors Freshfields where he was provided with a letter of agreement that stated what remediation would be done before the end of the year.
It never was, and Gowan was dispatched to America by Geldards to seek further evidence. Here amongst other experts he met one of Monsanto’s chief scientists, Dr William Papageorge, who was known as the company’s ‘PCB Czar’. Dr Papageorge provided him with information that showed Monsanto had long been aware of the hazards of PCBs, and had conducted tests on rats in 1953 that either killed them or affected their reproduction. He also admitted to Gowan that he knew that cows could be badly affected by PCBs, and the milk supply could be contaminated, as Monsanto had experienced this problem with cows in Ohio which had ingested feed that had become contaminated after being stored in a silo painted with a PCB-based paint that contained the company’s Aroclor-1254.
Dr Papageorge expressed concern over Brofiscin. He told Gowan that between 60,000 and 80,000 tonnes of PCB contaminated wastes had probably been sent there, with other Monsanto chemical wastes being sent to Maendy. He also confirmed to Gowan that many of the PCBs produced in the UK contained dibenzofurans and dioxins and pentachlorophenol, and thus would probably be carcinogenic.
How much Purle knew about what they had been dumping is unclear. In a press statement issued in 2006, Monsanto said all their contractors were aware of what they were dealing with and how they should be handled. Yet internal memos released in the Anniston court cases reveal that in 1971 they were still actively trying to diminish the backlash against PCBs and establish ways to boost the brand, and had NOT advised users of PCBs and contractors of the hazards. These documents also show that in 1969 Monsanto knew landfill was the worst form of disposal for such wastes.
Gowan also met Dr Nicholas Platonow, Professor of Toxicology at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada, who told Gowan that PCBs were capable of toxicity at low levels of exposure on a cumulative basis. In other words, cows or sheep ingesting regular amounts from a stream.
By the time Gowan returned to the UK in 1973, Brofiscin had been filled, dumping ceased and the quarry site covered with spoil and topsoil. However, Miles and others had launched a High Court action against IWD and Purle for damages and to enforce the remediation plan, for which Gowan made his sworn affidavit. Since the arguments continued over who knew what when, Gowan continued his research.
There was to be a twist in the tail, however, which illustrates the atmosphere in which Gowan had been conducting his investigations. Miles and the other plaintiffs settled out of court – receiving payments of several thousand pounds – in bizarre circumstances. They were persuaded to do so having been convinced that Gowan was lying. They had good cause to believe the accusation. Hawkins, on behalf of Purle, had launched a libel action against Gowan saying he had deliberately falsified his reports into pollution at Brofiscin. Gowan, who was now living in America, was wholly unaware of these proceedings but his absence from the English court outraged the Judge. In his absence, damages of £50,000 – a bankrupting figure – were awarded against him.
He was only made aware of this ruinous situation when enforcement was attempted in America in a Chicago court. Challenged by the US judge, he swiftly cleared his name by proving he had sold his flat in London by the time the papers were alleged to have been served and, on that day, as his passport clearly showed, he was in China on business.
The US judge batted the case back to the original UK court, exonerating Gowan in the process. This could be seen as a crude attempt not only to undermine Gowan’s report into pollution and get his affidavit struck from the record, but also to stop him operating as an environment expert in America.
Expert testimony used in this attempt to ruin Gowan came from Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories in America – a company used to perform chemical and toxicology analysis by both the US government and Monsanto. It was shut down in 1978 when exposed for doctoring reports in favour of the chemical industry, and its directors were jailed in 1984.
Other pressures were being brought to bear too. On three occasions Monsanto dispatched the late Sir Richard Doll to meet with Gowan. A scientific luminary of the day, who has latterly been exposed as publicly stating chemical compounds such as Agent Orange were safe while secretly being in the pay of Monsanto, Doll told Gowan that PCBs were safe and that Gowan didn’t know what he was talking about.
In 1973, Peter Thomas, MP, the then Secretary of State for Wales, echoed Hawkins’ charge. From the safety of the House of Commons he libelled Gowan, telling the chamber there was no public health hazard at Brofiscin and Maendy and no danger of any contamination of public water supplies. He had been misled by Gowan, he said, whom he accused of exaggerating his reports. In fact Peter Thomas had never met Gowan, spoken to him, or corresponded with him, or vice versa. A government report into Brofiscin released in 1975 contained none of Gowan’s reports or evidence, or that of his notable colleagues.
Despite everything, including the banning of PCB production in America, the UK government actively promoted such industry here until in 1977 when they reluctantly began to follow suit. Complete cessation did not occur until 1986.
In 2003 Brofiscin quarry suddenly erupted, disgorging an acrid pall over the area, and discoloured water into the environment, for weeks. Faced with widespread public anxiety about what was buried in the quarry, the Environment Agency launched an investigation and thus the appeal for information that Gowan responded to. An expert witness in most people’s book, he was welcomed with open arms by its chairman Sir John Harman.
Aside from his consultant’s report and eyewitness accounts, Gowan has another expertise for which the Agency had reason to be grateful. During his 30 years in business in the US, for about 10 years Gowan was a trustee in the US Bankruptcy Courts (USBC), and well versed in Chapter 11 reorganization cases, so knows their workings inside out.
This was an unexpected boon as Monsanto spin-off, Solutia Inc, are voluntarily in the USBC seeking protective restructuring, as any claims for liability stemming from chemical legacy liabilities, such as at Brofiscin and Maendy, should fall on them. These are incredibly complex proceedings and have been ongoing since 2003.
From papers presented to the USBC (Southern District) New York, Solutia Inc’s liabilities and assets are currently in a negative condition, and in order to trigger the indemnification by Monsanto, a claim would be essential. There is, however, no record of such a claim being lodged by the Environment Agency. Were huge claims now to materialise and succeed – and they could run into hundreds of millions if not billions of pounds – it would most likely send both companies into liquidation.
To date, the latest investigation into Brofiscin has cost £800,000. Any remediation is estimated at £100m. This figure could be dwarfed by associated civil actions relating to public health and planning. Monsanto has paid out approaching $1 billion to cover the ongoing cost of remediation at Anniston and settle civil claims by victims of the pollution, and more cases are outstanding. Solutia Inc will escape this outcome, as will Monsanto, if they can keep Gowan out of court – as without him there to be cross-examined, his witness statements become largely worthless.
Brofiscin and Maendy are but the tip of the iceberg. At least five other landfill sites across Wales and in the north of England accepted wastes from the Newport plant. Some are believed to have been operated by Purle and Redland and are on permeable rock; as if it was hoped the evidence would slowly disappear into the earth.
Gowan agreed with the Agency to hand over all his relevant documents, return to Brofiscin with Agency officers to identify what occurred where, prepare a new witness statement and advise on preparing the case for the USBC on a pro-bono basis. This plan floundered when Gowan fell ill. By the time he was back on his feet, he found he’d become persona non gratia.
Then a number of inexplicable events occurred. His appointed contact, John Harrison, announced out of the blue that he was going on extended leave and that the case was being passed to Agency lawyer Natasha Lewis and her boss, Graham Hillier. Although in possession of Gowan’s evidentiary proofs, Hillier has yet to speak with the man who only months before had been considered something of a godsend.
Gowan’s evidence was then released to Monsanto and Tony Morgan. That’s when he claims he started to receive threatening phone calls and menacing callers at his home, and experiencing break-ins that left him fearful for his personal safety. ‘You won’t live to testify’; ‘You’re the last surviving witness’ he was told; ‘Don’t you feel vulnerable?’ he was asked.
Perplexingly, however, the Agency also withheld his evidence from Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, who would be the primary plaintiff in the claim against Solutia Inc – as confirmed in a statement from Baroness Young on behalf of the Agency – saying that to pass them on would be an infringement of Gowan’s rights under the Data Protection Act.
The Agency also told Gowan, by letter, that there was no corroborating evidence and that all the people named in his testimony were probably deceased. Logic alone suggested to Gowan, 64 two weeks ago, that this was untrue and he began some amateur sleuthing. He found six to be alive and well, most notably Tony Morgan, former Purle and Redland Director, who holds a number of honorary positions today; Richard Hawkins, Purle’s former counsel, who continues to practice as an environmental lawyer; Robin Geldard, who is retired; Peter Pringle who is living in New York; Sir Colin Corness, former CEO of Redland; and Herbert Vodden, also retired.
Four of these men were at the 1972 site meeting when joint liability for remediation was agreed in writing. This is of course a critical document in proving the case against Solutia Inc and Monsanto. Gowan alerted the Agency but got no response and seemingly no action. Morgan refused to comment other than through his solicitors. Only Pringle would speak to the Ecologist, and expressed bewilderment at the treatment Gowan was receiving. He stood by his Insight stories.
The Agency has instructed Atkins not to accept or review Gowan’s evidence. Atkins is scheduled to deliver their final report, absent this information, in May.
Further confusion reigns over basic facts. Since the Ecologist pressed the question of lodging a claim in the USBC, the Agency’s response has changed. First Hillier released a statement saying rights had been asserted against Solutia UK. When challenged on the basis that the USBC has no jurisdiction over Solutia UK, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Solutia Inc protected against liability for Brofiscin and Maendy, the EA have changed their story. The latest is that an open-ended reservation of rights for Brofiscin and any other claims as yet known or unknown has been lodged with the USBC against Solutia Inc. As has been said, this is not reflected in the statement of liabilities Solutia Inc has lodged with the court.
They also say that there is no pressing deadline by which to lodge a claim, although the US press has reported the judge aims to wind up proceedings within months, having become exasperated with Solutia Inc over the four years they have been before her. It is an outcome Solutia Inc executives believe will happen. At the time of going to press the Agency had not received a court date for the hearing of their submissions.
The official line – given by Hillier in the press, by Carwyn Jones, minister of state for the environment at the Welsh Assembly and Baroness Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency, in written statements, and by Lord Rooker, the Defra minister responsible in answer to an oral question to Countess Mar – is that the water at Brofiscin is safe and that dumping only took place towards the west end of the quarry and covers the area the size of a ‘swimming pool’.
Claims that defy logic on three counts. First, in a preliminary report dated 2005, the Agency’s own consultants, Atkins said: ‘Pollution of controlled water is occurring... The waste and ground water have recently been shown to contain significant quantities of poisonous, noxious and polluting material... and additional entry (into the environment) will therefore take place’.
Secondly, that they have an eye-witness account that testifies otherwise. The picture on page 46 shows the current state of the quarry – the west end lies in the far distance beyond the black line. When landfilling first began the quarry was up to 40 metres deep with one point of access (from the north eastern end). It is impossible for dumping to have taken place at the west end without the rest of the quarry floor being filled, which means about 20 metres of fill and waste has been dumped across the quarry floor that is evidently waterlogged. (On the 4 April the Agency changed its story yet again and now admits that 1.26 hectares, or 84 per cent, of the quarry, is contaminated and not as previously stated the area the size of a swimming pool.)
Finally, the Welsh Assembly has set aside £20m to cover the cost of remediation at the quarries. A peculiar use of public money for an area that is ‘safe’.
The statements also show a frightening misunderstanding about the nature of PCBs in the environment. They are not safe and do not become safe over time; they are long- living and their effect on human and animal health is cumulative. As a consequence their impact might not be immediately felt. However, such was the concern about this impact that in 1979 their production was outlawed in the US and by the UK government in 1986. In other words the threat had been recognized and action taken to protect the public and governments of the day from legal actions for compensation stemming from their continued use.
Yet again, as in the Seventies, it seems strenuous efforts are being made to suppress Gowan’s evidence, which inescapably says we are sitting on an environmental health time bomb, which could erupt at any time.
Inaction against Monsanto leaves not only the public purse exposed, but more importantly public health. The implications are staggering. Could the political imperative be to keep the wheels on the ‘knowledge economy’? For the past five years the government has actively promoted and planned future growth around this new tech revolution which includes GM crops, nanotechnology and smart materials.
PCBs were smart materials. Monsanto released them into the environment knowing them to be a danger to public health and the environment. If we are not to go forward recklessly then people like Gowan have to be heard and lessons learned. Otherwise no amount of regulation can safeguard against that happening again.
Gowan has high levels of PCB in his blood – 30 times above the average – and suffers immune system suppression and muscular seizures that immobilise him. He is registered disabled. He told the Ecologist that he was recently threatened by telephone with having his benefits stopped if he continued to speak out. His unwelcome caller claimed to be representing the Treasury and Environment Agency.
Gowan has shown immense courage in the face of staggering intimidation and efforts to have his expert testimony scrubbed from the record. He is being besieged and harassed for doing what he considers to be his civic duty. He deserves better.
We all do.
A Dangerous Mix?
Exactly what lies at the bottom of Brofiscin quarry is a mystery but surveys into its contents have turned up an unholy mix of substances including:
Acrylic polyester, Aldehyde, Aluminium, Arsenic, Barium, calcium and zinc-based petroleum additives, Butynol, Calcium carbide sweepings, Calium chloride, Chromium VI, Cleaning solvents (including xylol, butanols, white spirits, styrene and methylene chlorides), Copper, Distillation residues (containing aniline and surfactants), dry matter products, ethylene dichloride, iron, lead, lime slurry, magnesium, manganese, organophosphorus compounds, phelols, plastic manufacturing wastes, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), residues of high molecular chlorinated hydrocarbons, resins (various) (rubbers (various) sodium, sulphur, tar, trichloroethylene, vanadium, wood chippings, zinc
Most chemical safety tests set standards for single substances. Yet in our society, human exposure to chemicals, be it environmental or occupational, is rarely limited to a single chemical, rather, people are exposed to a myriad of chemicals through their lifetime. Unfortunately not only is there a lack of knowledge concerning the dangers of these real-life mixtures, and how they might interact in biological sustems, there is also limited technology to help scientists understand how these mixtures behave in the body and in the environment.
Such chemicals can have an additive effect, which means each chemical exposure simply adds its own toxicity to the mix (essentially 1+1=3). OR they can have a potentiating effect where a chemical that is normally thought to be benign or inert appears to increase the effect of another chemical (thus 0+1=3).
We know what chemicals went into Brofiscin, but we do not know what entirely new chemical compounds may have formed as a result. The admixture has never been studied and indeed may never be studied. As a result Brofiscin is the most contaminated place in Britain in part because of the tonnage of chemicals so carelessly dumped there, but also because of the unknown chemicals that are forming from those mixtures.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007
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- Letter: Environment Agency respond to Ecologist investigation
- The murky world of Monsanto, Brofiscin Quarry and the Environment Agency
- How the Environment Agency failed to make Monsanto pay
- Letter: Environment Agency's second response to Ecologist investigation
- Shooting the messenger: the story of Douglas Gowan
- Ecologist Archive: The Monsanto issue of 1998
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