dumped toxic waste in UK
Inquiry after chemicals found at site 30 years after their disposal
John Vidal, environment editor,
Monday February 12, 2007 - The Guardian
Evidence has emerged that the Monsanto chemical company paid contractors
to dump thousands of tonnes of highly toxic waste in British landfill
sites, knowing that their chemicals were liable to contaminate wildlife
and people. Yesterday the Environment Agency said it had launched an
inquiry after the chemicals were found to be polluting underground water
supplies and the atmosphere 30 years after they were dumped.
According to the agency it could
cost up to £100m to clean up a site in south Wales that has been
called "one of the most contaminated" in the country.
A previously unseen government
report read by the Guardian shows that 67 chemicals, including Agent
Orange derivatives, dioxins and PCBs which could have been made only
by Monsanto, are leaking from one unlined porous quarry that was not
authorised to take chemical wastes.
The Brofiscin quarry on the edge
of the village of Groesfaen, near Cardiff, erupted in 2003, spilling
fumes over the surrounding area, but the community has been told little
about the real condition of what is in the pit. Yesterday the government
was criticised for failing to publish information about the scale and
exact nature of this contamination.
Douglas Gowan, a pollution consultant who produced the first official
report into the Brofiscin quarry in 1972 after nine cows on a local
farm died of poisoning, said: "The authorities have known about
the situation for years, but have done nothing. There is evidence of
not only negligence and utter incompetence, but cover-up, and the problem
has grown unchecked."
Much of the new information about
Monsanto's activities in Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s has emerged
from court papers filed in the US and previously unseen internal company
documents. They show how the company knew from 1965 onwards that the
PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls used mainly as flame retardants and
insulaters - manufactured in the US and at its plant in Newport, south
Wales, under the trade name Aroclor, were accumulating in human milk,
rivers, fish and seafood, wildlife and plants.
The documents show that in 1953,
company chemists tested the PCB chemicals on rats and found that they
killed more than 50% with medium-level doses. However, it continued
to manufacture PCBs and dispose of the wastes in south Wales until 1977,
more than a decade after evidence of widespread contamination of humans
and the environment was beyond doubt.
A high-level committee within the
company was given the task in 1968 of assessing Monsanto's options and
reported contamination in human milk, fish, birds and wildlife from
around the world, including Britain. "In the case of PCBs the company
is faced with a barrage of adverse publicity ... it will be impossible
to deny the presence and persistence of Aroclors. The public and legal
pressures to eliminate or prevent global contamination are inevitable
and probably cannot be contained successfully," the committee reported.
The report, which was shown to
only 12 people, said: "The alternatives are [to] say and do nothing;
create a smokescreen; immediately discontinue the manufacture of Aroclors;
respond responsibly, admitting growing evidence of environmental contamination
..." A scrawled note at the end of the document says: "The
Big Question! What do we tell our customers ... try to stay in business
or help customer's clean up their use?"
Monsanto stopped producing PCBs
in the US in 1971, but the UK government, which knew of the dangers
of PCBs in the environment in the 1960s, allowed their production in
Wales until 1977.
Yesterday Monsanto, which has split
into several corporate entities since 1997, said in a statement: "On
behalf of [former parent company] Pharmacia Corp, Monsanto is handling
issues related to the historical manufacture of PCBs in Wales. We continue
to work with the Wales Department of Environment and other regulatory
bodies to resolve these issues. A thorough review ... will show that
Pharmacia did inform its contractors of the nature of wastes prior to
disposal, and that Pharmacia did not dump wastes from its own vehicles."
Solutia, the spin-off from Monsanto
which now owns the Newport site, said it was giving Monsanto and the
regulatory agencies "information as requested".
The Environment Agency Wales said
it was investigating the contents of the site: "This is one of
the most contaminated sites in Wales and it is a priority to remediate
because it is so close to habitations," said John Harrison, the
agency's manager of the Taff/Ely region. "There is ground water
pollution, but we do not think at present there is any danger to human
health. We have spent about £800,000 so far investigating the
tip. Our legal team is gathering all the evidence and we are trying
to apportion costs."
Special report - Waste and pollution