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Corby judgment: do birth defects mean nothing?

Debbie Tripley

21st August, 2009

A handful of brave, convinced mothers fought their local council to make it pay for polluting their environment and causing their children birth defects. But has anyone learned anything from this landmark ruling?

Why is it that the recent findings of Judge Akenhead in the Corby case ignited so little shock and rage? 

The case is notable for being what campaigners say is the first in the world to find that airborne pollution could cause certain birth defects. The High Court ruled that Corby Council had been in breach of its statutory duty of care owed to its citizens, and through negligence had caused pregnant women to be exposed to air born toxic substances, which resulted in a cluster of birth defects.

The case dates back to work begun in 1983, when Corby Council embarked on a wholesale campaign of demolition and excavation of a disused steel site.  The Council was undertaking the ‘clean-up’ operation with little or no detailed chemical testing or protection of the public from the dust and movement of chemicals. Unfortunately, the local authority either failed to take local concerns seriously or these concerns just weren’t articulated in a way that got through to the decision makers. The Court’s decision to find the Council in breach of its duty of care was welcome.

Imagine the dismay then, when it was announced this week that Corby Council is planning to appeal the decision, whilst offering to enter into mediation with the families; something the Council has ‘point blank’ refused to do over the past ten years. As the lawyer for the families, Des Collins said in a recent interview on Radio 4, ‘I don’t believe the Council has ever acted in perfectly good faith as far as these children are concerned…..It (the Council) has adopted throughout the last ten years the approach of what you possibly might regard, as a multi national chemical industry’.

It is tempting to think that the Corby case is the exception.

But the recent Environment Agency report ‘Dealing with Contaminated Land in England and Wales – A review of progress from 2000-2007’ noted that despite the fact that all 375 local authorities had produced inspection strategies, the majority estimated that they had actually looked at less than 10 per cent of their area for contaminants since 2000.  Moreover, some 90 per cent of all identified contaminated sites were found to have housing already built on it.

Despite cases like Corby, environmental health issues appear to have limited interest.  The oft-quoted link between poor quality environment, failures in regulatory controls and the deprived communities that end up suffering disproportionately from environmental harms, features little in general green debates.

Poor communities often have a good sense of environmental inequality. So in Corby, well before the ‘experts’ provided the local population with the requisite level of proof enabling them to bring legal proceedings, it was already known generally that they were living next to one of Britain’s most notorious toxic waste dumps.

Indeed it was the good sense of those Corby mothers who gave birth to children with significant birth defects, such as shortened or missing arms, legs and fingers, that meant they ignored the findings of the local health authority in 2000 which claimed that there was ‘no evidence of a cluster of deformities’.

At the Environmental Law Foundation, we have worked since 1992 to help empower poor and disadvantaged communities that are exposed to environmental harm by providing people with free legal advice. There is good evidence that such communities are routinely short-changed by a widespread indifference to their planning and environmental needs: deprived communities will often suffer the worst air quality and have a greater number of polluting industries located within their local communities.

The launch of ELF’s Sustainable Communities Project should enable our network of regional volunteers to work directly with those communities suffering from environmental disadvantage and injustice. Our regional volunteers will help ensure that where there is a likely Corby-type case, local communities can receive help to enable them to articulate their concerns with local decision makers or bring relevant legal cases with help from our network of pro-bono lawyers.

We are always looking for more volunteers, offer training on a regular basis and will be holding an event on the regulation of contaminated land in the UK in the Autumn. If you are interested in volunteering with the Environmental Law Foundation or are a community suffering from the effects of local environmental degradation, we would like to hear from you. For more information, please visit ELF’s website at www.elflaw.org


Debbie Tripley is CEO of the Environmental Law Foundation

 

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