Chemical waste stockpile in Wrexham finally cleared

The Wrexham waste treatment site that was abandoned in 1998, leaving behind thousands of tonnes of chemical waste, has finally been cleared thanks to funding from the Welsh Development Agency and the persistence of the neighbouring business Brake Engineering - which bought the site but ended up having to contribute more to the clean-up costs than it had anticipated.

Bluestone Chemicals, based at Wrexham industrial estate, received more than 3,000 tonnes of spent catalyst waste from the detergents industry between 1994 and 1998. Income from some of these wastes helped Bluestone fund construction of the recycling process, which was supposed to recover copper, chrome and fatty alcohols, but it did not work reliably.

Following a prosecution for odour nuisance, Bluestone went into voluntary liquidation in 1998, leaving behind debts of £1.12 million, a small chemical plant and a stockpile of more than 7,000 drums, some of which were heavily corroded and leaking (ENDS Report 283, pp 31-33 ).

Around half the drums remaining on site came from chemicals firm Albright & Wilson, now part of Rhodia, which had handed the waste to Bluestone without paying a penny. The other half of the stockpile which had funded the plant build came from Germany, the Netherlands and the Philippines.

Bluestone's enraged neighbour at the industrial estate, Brake Engineering, was on one occasion forced to evacuate the site after staff complained of dizziness, headaches and sore eyes. With around 100 employees, Brake Engineering is a small firm supplying components for the automotive sector.

In April 2000, having heard that Bluestone directors were trying to start again, Brake Engineering's retired chairman, John Willis, eventually acquired the site for £20,000. He was determined to prevent Bluestone from restarting.

Bluestone's founders, Alan Kenny and Steve Brown, had set up a new company, Catalyst International (KB) Ltd, and were attempting to transfer the Wrexham site's licence into the new name. They also took steps to process the waste at a site in Preston (ENDS Report 287, pp 14-15 ).

Meanwhile, Albright & Wilson initially declined to accept liability for the wastes it had consigned to Bluestone. Negotiations between the Environment Agency, A&W and Catalyst International revolved around hopes that the recycling process might yet be made to work. These negotiations led to nothing. Rhodia eventually accepted its "duty of care" for the waste, and agreed to pay £200,000 for the disposal of the remaining 1,506 tonnes of waste it had delivered to Bluestone.

But it was not until May 2003, after numerous meetings with the Environment Agency, the WDA and Wrexham council, that Mr Willis found a way forward to clear the remaining waste. The WDA agreed to fund 80% of the net costs faced by Mr Willis, after taking account of the enhancement to land value once the site was cleared.

The remaining 1,627 tonnes of waste were taken to a Biffa landfill in Warrington last year, at a cost of £137,400. The WDA contributed some £72,800, leaving Brake to pay the rest.

Mr Willis is far from happy with the situation, having entered into what he understood was a partnership arrangement. He complains that the agreement was based on erroneous valuations and that his costs have been substantially more than those of the rest of the partnership.

"There's also the time that we as a small business have expended in dealing with this nightmare, which has been brought about by a series of bureaucratic blunders," he says. Much of the difficulties can be traced back to the council's role in granting a waste site licence to Bluestone in the early 1990s.

Mr Willis puts his costs since the WDA grant was agreed at £91,646, in exchange for which he now owns land worth an estimated £50,000. "We cannot leave matters as they are and are pursuing a more equitable settlement as we are the injured party in all of this, and have ended up paying a lot more than the site is worth."

Adding insult to injury, the introduction of the contaminated land regime in Wales in 2001 cost Mr Willis £10,000. The WDA deducted this sum from its grant award on the grounds that, as the owner of the site, Brake Engineering had a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent pollution and harm to health - in this case by maintaining pumps designed to intercept polluted rainwater run-off and repairing the boundary fence - works which eventually transpired to cost no more than £2,000.

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