Environment Agency ordered to reduce noxious gases affecting village

Relief for Staffordshire village blighted by ‘rotten egg’ smell from festering landfill site as Environment Agency is ordered to reduce noxious gases mother claimed were shortening her five-year-old son’s life

  • Mathew Richards was born prematurely at 26 weeks with a chronic lung disease 
  • Doctors said hydrogen sulphide emissions preventing his lung development
  • Justice Fordham said Environment Agency must reduce concentration levels
  • Mathew’s solicitor Rebekah Carrier described it as a ‘David and Goliath’ case
  • EA said it would use powers to ensure Walleys Quarry bring emissions down 

A five-year-old boy and his mother have won a legal case against the regulator of a Staffordshire landfill site accused of emitting noxious gases that risk shortening his life.

Lawyers for Mathew Richards argued there is a ‘public health emergency’ in the vicinity of Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, claiming hydrogen sulphide (H2S) emissions are affecting ‘hundreds and probably thousands of local people’.

Mr Justice Michael Fordham today found in Mathew’s favour, ruling that ‘real and significant change’ was required ‘as a matter of urgency’.

It comes after residents said they were forced to tape their windows and doors shut to avoid the smell of ‘rotting flesh’ or ‘faeces’ swept into their homes. 

In response to today’s ruling, the Environment Agency (EA), which is monitoring the site’s air-quality levels, said it will continue using its regulatory powers to ensure Walleys Quarry Ltd bring ‘hydrogen sulphide emissions under control’. 

Residents living in the vicinity of the Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme said they were forced to tape their windows and doors shut to avoid the smell of ‘rotting flesh’ or ‘faeces’ swept into their homes

Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme where local residents have complained of a foul stench coming from the site

Mr Justice Michael Fordham today found in Mathew’s (left) favour, ruling that ‘real and significant change’ was required ‘as a matter of urgency’. Mr Justice Fordham made a declaration that the Environment Agency ‘must implement’ Public Health England’s advice to reduce concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in the local area to one part per billion, less than an eighth of the level that can be smelled, by January 2022

At a two-day hearing in August, the High Court in London heard that Mathew was a vulnerable child, born prematurely at 26 weeks with a chronic lung disease and needed oxygen support for 19 months.

The five-year-old’s doctor told the court that as the H2S emissions were preventing his recovery and lung development, he was at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the future which would dramatically reduce his life expectancy.

His lawyers accused the EA of ‘failing’ to take measures and being in breach of Mathew’s human rights. 

Mr Justice Fordham made a declaration that the EA ‘must implement’ Public Health England’s advice to reduce concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in the local area to one part per billion, less than an eighth of the level that can be smelled, by January 2022. 

He said: ‘Based on all the evidence, about Mathew, and about the emissions, and about the implications of the emissions for Mathew, I am satisfied that there is a direct effect on Mathew’s home, family life and private life from adverse effects of severe environmental pollution.’ 

Mathew’s mother Rebecca Currie described fumes from the site as ‘a stomach-wrenching smell like rotten eggs’, as other residents said they suffered headaches and nosebleeds which they attributed to the smell from the quarry.

Ms Currie, who lives approximately 400 metres from the landfill, previously said she would have been forced to move away from her home with her son if the legal action failed.

The court heard the EA had taken ‘very substantial steps’ at the landfill site and ‘continues to keep matters under review’.

Public Health England’s position is that ‘currently any risk to long-term health is likely to be small, but a risk cannot completely be excluded if exposure were to continue at current levels’, the court heard.

Justice Fordham added: ‘It will require pressing and ongoing action which will, in my judgment, make a very real difference so far as the air which Mathew, and his community, breathes is concerned.

‘I accept it is not necessary, nor is it appropriate, for this court to say that there is a current breach by the EA of its legal obligations.

‘I have made clear that I am not satisfied, on the evidence, that the EA has yet addressed its legal duties in the way that it must.

‘But there is an obvious and pressing public interest imperative that it must do so, as a matter of urgency.

‘It is well able to do so.’

Residents, dad Josh Cutler, 30, daughter Isla, 5, Becci Whalley, 29, with her son Tobias Cutler, 2, previously complained about the foul smell coming from the nearby landfill site

After the judgment, Ms Currie said: ‘This decision today, it’s going to give Mathew and the community fresh air again. Not what we’ve been breathing in.

‘Now I can stay in my own home because I was being forced out. Obviously I couldn’t let Mathew live there any longer if the answer hadn’t gone in his favour today.

‘If you’ve got a child and you need to fight, fight. Don’t back off from it. Do what I’ve done – fight for it.’ 

After today’s judgement, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: ‘We have every sympathy with the local community, who should not have to live with the distress caused by landfill gas being released from Walleys Quarry.

‘That’s why we are requiring the operator, Walleys Quarry Ltd, to take action.

‘The court agreed that we are right to rely on assessments and advice from Public Health England and did not find a present breach by the Environment Agency of its legal obligations.

‘We have a dedicated team working closely with our partners through a multi-agency forum to resolve the issues and to improve the situation for local people.

‘We will continue to use our regulatory powers to require Walleys Quarry Ltd to bring hydrogen sulphide emissions under control.’

Lawyers for Mathew Richards argued there is a ‘public health emergency’ in the vicinity of Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme (pictured), claiming hydrogen sulphide (H2S) emissions are affecting ‘hundreds and probably thousands of local people’

The EA added that it will seek to appeal some parts of the judgment.

Mathew’s solicitor Rebekah Carrier described the case as being ‘truly David and Goliath’ with a mother coming up against a Government agency.

Afterwards, she added: ‘While we are delighted with today’s judgment we are very concerned that the Environment Agency do not appear to be taking their duties as seriously as they must.

‘We will be keeping a very close eye on the situation to make sure that they do take the urgent action the High Court has said is needed.

‘If they do not take the action necessary to protect the human rights of Mathew and others in the community we will have no hesitation in bringing the matter back to court.

‘I would also like to pay tribute to Rebecca Currie, who has bravely stood up to the Environment Agency to protect the life of her child.

‘This is truly a ‘David and Goliath’ case where a mother has faced up to the Government agency which is supposed to protect public health and yet has failed so badly to do so.’

However, Ms Currie said she was ‘angry’ that the EA was able to carry on operating the Staffordshire landfill for as long as it was.

‘I really am angry about that because at the end of the day there were thousands of complaints’, she said.

‘When the first couple of hundred were coming in, they should’ve acted then but we’ve just been fobbed off.’

The family’s solicitor Ms Carrier added: ‘We asked the Environment Agency what they thought “as soon as possible” means, and instead of telling us how they were going to get the levels down and when we could expect them to do that they applied for permission to appeal.

‘That’s been refused by Mr Justice Fordham, so hopefully now we’ll have real action really quickly to make sure the families of Silverdale can have clean air.’

Ms Carrier added that if no steps are taken, the problem risks getting worse in the winter.

She said: ‘There’s a concern about how that’s managed given that the evidence is that hydrogen sulphide emissions are worse in the winter.

‘I think the community are going to be delighted that they are hopefully going to have some change before winter, because there was a lot of anxiety there about what was going to happen if it got worse.

‘The irony about this case is that I met Mathew off the train this morning and said: “Ok Mathew, welcome to London, breathe our clean air”.

‘When would you ever say that to anybody else? But that’s the reality for Mathew. He doesn’t have clean air to breathe at home.’  

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