Can London’s new gateway clean up?

DP World is pressing ahead with a major port development on brownfield land adjoining the Thames estuary despite the economic downturn. Philip Lightowlers explores how the company is managing the environmental issues thrown up by the project

On the flatlands of the Essex shore of the Thames estuary, between Cory’s Mucking landfill site and Petroplus’s Coryton refinery, lies 600 hectares of derelict land. This was once home to Shell’s mighty Shell Haven oil refinery, which was decommissioned in 1999 and demolished. Now the only remnants of the towering crackers and steaming pipework are a beleaguered bitumen plant and a terminal where ships unload kerosene.

Few buildings remain to break the lie of the land. The site has been empty and left to wildlife for six years. But there are big plans for this area, which has three kilometres of estuarine frontage accessible to ocean-going ships, connections to the national rail network and is just 13 kilometres from the M25 motorway.

DP World, formed in 2005 from the Dubai Ports Authority and Dubai Ports International, is pursuing a £1.5 billion investment project to build what it claims will be "the UK’s first 21st century major deep water container port and logistics centre". The company is one of the four largest global port operators, working at 48 ports in 30 different countries.

The London Gateway, as the facility is to be known, was pioneered by P&O, which DP World bought in 2006. London Gateway chief executive, Simon Moore, claims it "will deliver the most efficient and technologically advanced port in the world and much-needed deep sea capacity for the UK". It will have a similar capacity to Felixstowe - the UK’s largest container terminal - and increase national container capacity by a third. It will also create more than 12,000 jobs and keep the land remediation and construction industries going through the recession.

The company trumpets the site’s environmental benefits. It will use computer-controlled machinery to offload and store the thousands of large steel containers bringing goods from China and other exporting countries. The system’s efficiency will help shipping lines save time and money and, DP World says, allow operations to continue with less light and noise pollution.

Distribution benefits
Close to the port, retailers and distributors will be able to build warehouse distribution centres where they can unpack containers and send the goods to outlets across the UK. The site’s proximity to the M25 and major markets in the south-east will, DP World argues, give it an advantage over ports such as Felixstowe and Southampton. Retailers will not need to take containers to distribution centres in the Midlands, saving 2,000 lorry movements per day. The company also hopes half the incoming goods will be distributed by rail or sea rather than road.

DP World’s plans are well under way. The development received government approval in May 2007 following a five-month public inquiry and four years of indecision. The first contract was let last August to Laing O’Rourke and Dredging International. The £400 million deal will see 1.2km of quayside built and the estuary dredged to create a deepwater approach. DP World expects the first ships to unload in 2011.

If all now looks set for success, London Gateway has had to overcome some major obstacles. P&O and Shell’s planning application was the subject of a planning inquiry which opened in February 2003. It faced considerable opposition.

The Environment Agency, English Nature (now Natural England) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) feared the protected habitats edging the estuary, including internationally recognised Ramsar sites and Special Protection Areas such as the Benfleet and Medway marshes, would be affected

The RSPB pointed to losses of intertidal mud flats, which are important feeding grounds for wading birds, and the fragmentation of coastal grazing marshes.

Natural England was worried about impacts on protected species on land, such as bats, reptiles, water voles and great crested newts, and at sea, notably the sea lamprey and the twaite shad.

Meanwhile, a local environmental coalition raised fears about noise, vibration, air pollution and light nuisance from increased traffic. The local authority, Thurrock Borough Council and the Highways Agency were concerned the development would overload the local and regional road networks.

Nevertheless, the planning inspector’s report issued in February 2004 concluded the development was "a good opportunity to meet the government’s policies for sustainable development". Both the port and logistics park would make "a major contribution to the meeting of the nation’s needs for commercial and industrial development whilst respecting environmental objectives".1 But to obtain that verdict the developers had to make a raft of promises. On road transport provision they had to agree a ‘travel plan’. This included funding major improvements to the main site access road, the Manorway, which gives access to the A13 and the M25, and improvements to major junctions along the route.

They also had to agree to provide shuttle buses for employees from the local railway station and cap parking spaces at 4,000 - a third of the people likely to work on site. Cycle lanes and access routes will also be built.

Rail access was always part of the proposal but plans to improve the rail link to the site by building a loop line across green belt land was rejected as unnecessary given the uncertain demand for rail distribution from the site. For the time being at least, the site must rely on its existing rail spur.

The developer was also required to mitigate the development’s impact on wildlife, both on land and in the estuary. DP World has produced a 3.5-year ‘ecological management and mitigation plan’ which includes a programme of wildlife relocation and marine monitoring, costed at about £50 million. The company’s environment manager, Marcus Pearson, whose previous projects include the east London Olympic site, admits: "This is certainly the largest programme of mitigation I have been involved with."

A massive operation organised by consultants Thomson Ecology is under way to move thousands of animals, many of which have colonised the site during its years of dereliction, to suitable habitats outside the development area.

A team of 25 ecologists caught and moved newts, lizards, snakes, slow worms and water voles last summer. A patchwork of 23,000 mats were placed across the site to provide refuges for reptiles. Each mat was examined twice a day and any animals found were caught and transported to new wildlife sites being created at the edge of the development or to a reserve in Wiltshire.

The site is also criss-crossed by 25km of fences to divert newts and reptiles into buckets buried in the ground. Watercourses on the site are also surrounded by sturdier fences designed to contain water voles. Any animals trapped here are also relocated.

Particular attention has been paid to great crested newts and water voles, which are protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. To date, more than 50,000 animals including great crested newts, adders, slow worms and lizards have been caught.

All of the great crested newts will be housed in 24 ponds built on more than 50 hectares of land set aside to the north of the development as a nature reserve. The smooth newts, adders and other reptiles will be relocated to two nature reserves managed by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust that lack reptiles.

Another area, currently farmland, is to be flooded to recreate intertidal marshes, replacing part of the site due to be redeveloped as quayside. This is expected to provide additional habitat for wading birds.

But the construction work is not only above ground. About 30 million cubic metres of spoil will be dredged from the estuary to create a 300-metre-wide approach channel at least 14.5m below the lowest tide. Most of the dredging will be along a 30km stretch known as the Yarfleet channel.

The object is to allow the world’s largest container ships, measuring 400m long and nearly 60m wide, to use the port. Each will carry up to 15,000 containers. Monitoring is needed to ensure dredging does not damage spawning grounds for commercially important species.

Local fishing interests are keen to preserve spawning grounds for Dover sole at the nearby Mucking Flats and cockle beds at Maplin Sands. Another concern is that colonies of so-called white weed found on the muddy sections of the sea bed will be wiped out. These colonies of hydra-like animals are harvested by fishermen in the slack winter months and sold, after being dyed green, as an ornament for aquaria.

DP World will carry out surveys of sea bed and other species to establish a baseline and set up a network of 12 buoys measuring turbidity. Real-time monitoring of data from the buoys will enable dredging operations to be modified or halted if sediment reaches excessive levels.

Land contamination is also expected to be a problem because of the site’s oil refining history, which dates back to the 1890s. Other industrial processes carried out include detergent and fertiliser manufacture, the synthesis of the fuel additives tetra ethyl and tetra methyl lead, benzene refining, desulphurisation and the handling of many hydrocarbon products including waxes, kerosene and various other fuels. Wastes disposal from some of these activities had also been allowed on the site.

Shell, and more latterly, DP World have been digging trial pits across the site in areas likely to be contaminated. Free product, heavy tars and bitumen are all expected to turn up. Munitions from both World Wars may also lie buried in the site’s soft soils.

Delicate negotiations over ownership and liability for the site’s logistics area are ongoing. Environmental liability is 80% of the uncertainty, Mr Pearson says. Consultancy ERM is working for Shell while Environ is acting for DP World.

Mr Pearson says DP World has made a baseline survey of the site which reveals some areas will need cleaning up. "We will be appointing a remediation contractor shortly to treat or clean up any hydrocarbon waste materials that we encounter," he says.

Soil windrow bioremediation, where the soil is aerated to aid bacterial breakdown of contaminants, is due to start early this year. But more detailed investigations will be needed on a plot-by-plot basis as development of individual warehouse sites progresses. Each site must be remediated to a standard suitable for general industrial, storage and distribution use.

Before the oil refinery was built, the site was marshland with three watercourses or fleets. These were largely infilled over the years, but pools and surface water discharge points remain which are fitted with oil interceptors to catch any contaminated run off.

Site investigations show that underneath the fill material are 8-15m of silt and clay. Beneath this is a minor aquifer which flows into the estuary. The aquifer currently poses no threat to the estuary’s water quality. Analyses from 18 monitoring wells across the site suggest the groundwater is "totally clean", Mr Pearson says. But to ensure this remains so, any foundations on the site must not break through the clay layer.

"There is a vast amount of activity going on to enable this project to proceed," Mr Pearson reflects. "I find this very exciting, but the key challenge is ensuring we create the right solution for the environment for many years to come."

Notes of scepticism
The project’s lasting legacy will not just be its rehabilitation of industrial dereliction or the creation of a pleasant and productive site for residents and employees. Its carbon benefits promise to be the key factor as the country strives to reach long-term targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

DP World believes the port and warehouse complex’s logistical efficiencies will be enormous. By reducing the need for goods to travel inland - for example, to distribution centres in the Midlands - and empty shipping containers then being returned to the port, some 2,000 lorries will be taken off the road every day.

It says the figures are conservative because they do not include subsequent efficiencies from locating distribution centres close to main markets in the south east.

Two notes of scepticism are appropriate here. First, the savings will not be realised by DP World but by distributors which use the port and build logistics centres. Second, it could be argued that London Gateway is an expansion of UK import capacity and will not actually result in carbon savings unless it replaces less well sited distribution centres elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the company believes at least 52 million lorry miles will be saved each year. Assuming average carbon dioxide emissions of 850 grams per kilometre (1.37kg per mile) this would equal CO2 savings of 71,240 tonnes per year - a worthwhile achievement.

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