Watchdog blasted over landfill site

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EURO MPs have rapped the Government’s environment watchdog over its monitoring of a controversial tip.

Campaigners fighting to close Houghton Quarry landfill site took their case to the European Parliament’s petitions committee in March, as reported in the Echo.

The committee agreed to write to the Environment Agency (EA) expressing concerns over the watchdog’s alleged lack of action.

Now chairwoman Erminia Mazzoni has penned strongly-worded letters to the agency highlighting MEPs’ concerns.

She said: “In addition to writing to the Environment Agency seeking an explanation for their apparent failure to act, the members have instructed me to write seeking an explanation from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

“The members are concerned that the UK Government, in full knowledge of the dangerous situation of this landfill, failed to take action in order to live up to its obligations under landfill directives.”

In a letter to Paul Leinster, chief executive of the EA, Ms Mazzoni wrote: “The members took note with surprise and dismay of the situation of the landfill, originally granted an operation licence for waste in 1996.

“It seems that the Environment Agency was well aware of the risks of ground water pollution in an area of highly-fractured rocks in major fault lines, further destabilised by rising mine waters from seven coal mining seams.

“Furthermore the, site was excluded from the Groundwater Source Protection Zone Two, which would have precluded the storage of toxic waste.”

Ms Mazzoni said the agency had already acknowledged levels of leaking leachate – a liquid containing environmentally harmful substances – was soaking into rocks which carry groundwater.

In 2010, higher levels of ammonia were found in groundwater near the tip.

Tests were carried out to determine where the substance had come from and the EA ordered the polluted water to be removed.

Action was also taken about the smell of the tip after hundreds of complaints from residents.

Graham Donachie, EA permitting team leader, said: “The Environment Agency is in the process of providing a detailed response to the letter from the European Commission Petitions Committee.

“The issues raised regarding the permitting of the site in 1996 were comprehensively addressed at that time and we were satisfied with the underlying stability of the site and the protection of the groundwater below.

“However, we are investigating groundwater pollution as a result of an isolated incident and not because we believe there is any evidence of the base liner leaking. We are considering enforcement action for this offence.”