PCBs, made decades ago, are today harming orcas, porpoises and kestrels. Photograph: Getty Images PCBs, made decades ago, are today harming orcas, porpoises and kestrels. Photograph: Getty Images

A poisonous legacy: PCBs and the killer whale apocalypse

A group of banned toxic chemicals made decades ago are today harming orcas, porpoises and kestrels. Rachel Salvidge investigates an industrial legacy that refuses to die

A pair of eyes glower at me from the freshly installed sign. “You are being watched and you will be identified,” it bellows in yellow capital letters. An image of a security camera has the letters CCTV written unnecessarily along its side. 

It’s a strange place for such heavy surveillance and such an aggressive placard. Zip-tied to a gate barring a mud track in the middle of rural Herefordshire between the tiny villages of Sutton St Nicholas and Marden, it is difficult to imagine who it might want to deter. 

Beyond the gate, the land rises sharply and farmland gives way to a wall of trees which shield the perimeter of a rare uncultivated patch of land at the top of the hill. Bisected by a trail, both the east and the west sections are covered with scrub and ringed by thick hedges, a section of old metal fencing lies bent and useless on the ground, barely recognisable beneath the spreading vegetation. 

Once the site of an Iron Age hill fort and the place where King Ethelbert of the Angles is said to have been beheaded before his body was discarded on the banks of the nearby river Lugg, the Sutton Walls hill is designated as a scheduled ancient monument. 

Odd then, that “between 1972 and 1975 a substantial quantity of liquid industrial waste from manufacturers such as British Steel, Monsanto, Dunlop, more locally Henry Wiggins and others was brought to the site”, according to a website run by the site’s owner, the Sutton Walls Conservation Group, which also displays aerial images of the hill, rent open and filled with all manner of unpleasantness. “These wastes included various dilute acids, liquid tars, ammonia, waste foam, machine oil and oily water. In 1975, the landfill site closed to industrial waste and the lagoons that had been formed started to be filled with domestic waste,” it reads.

Odder still, that the web page detailing the site’s landfill past in this way should vanish while being investigated by ENDS, leaving an error message in its place. The conservation group said it removed the page because it “distracted from our main interest which is the ancient history, ecology and archaeology” of the hill fort.

Of bloodshed and industrial waste – Sutton Walls hill is an historical site with a deadly past. Photograph: Rachel Salvidge

‘Unlined and poorly capped’

In 2014, consultancy Arcadis prepared a report on the site for the Environment Agency (EA) describing the landfill as comprising a “mixture of approximately 350,000 cubic metres of industrial and municipal waste” and  “approximately 225,000m3 of liquid waste comprising a wide range of inorganics, metals and xenobiotic organic compounds”. It is “unlined and poorly capped”, it goes on, but eventually concludes that “contaminant linkages have been assessed not to present unacceptable risks either to human health or the wider environment” and made “no recommendations for further work”. An earlier investigation by consultancy SKM Enviros in 2012 described it as a “series of lagoons” containing “liquid wastes that would now be considered to be hazardous”. 

There are few clues to the monstrous amount of industrial waste decaying a few inches beneath my boots, save for a dark copper-coloured pipe protruding from the ground, and perhaps that’s the way the local council would prefer it to stay, but unfortunately for them a tenacious vicar refuses to let the ghosts of our industrial past stay dead. 

‘Forever chemicals’

Reverend Paul Cawthorne has made it his mission to uncover a family of landfills across England and Wales which he suspects contain toxic chemicals and which he claims are not being properly managed. 

The story begins in the 1960s when Monsanto was manufacturing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at plants in Newport in south Wales and Ruabon in the north. Known as ‘forever chemicals’ for their ability to survive just about anything you can throw at them, PCBs were widely used in electrical, heat transfer and hydraulic equipment, as plasticisers in paints, plastics and rubber products, in pigments, dyes and in carbonless copy paper, and even as pesticide extenders.

Valued for their non-flammability and stability, the substances were made in huge volumes until evidence revealing they were carcinogenic and had a range of nasty effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems became impossible to ignore. Their production was eventually banned in the US in 1979, followed by the UK, which took a few more years to think about it before outlawing them in 1986.

‘Dirty dozen’

Around 18 years later, the bans were followed by the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from what became known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – substances, including PCBs, that are toxic, bioaccumulative, long-ranging and possess a frightening reluctance to break down in the environment. It entered force in 2004 with 12 PCBs, labelled the ‘dirty dozen’ – the first chemicals to make it on the convention’s list. 

Back in the 1960s and 70s, relatively few people were aware of their devastating ability to cause harm. However, it was definitely on a few radars. In the years before the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act 1972 came into force, which set out strict rules for the disposal of hazardous waste, companies in the UK began offloading some of their nastier substances via third-party trucking companies. 

Cleanup of Love Canal, upstate New York: Monsanto was among six companies in 1992 to pay £207m in damages to 1,700 residents made ill by a toxic waste dump. Photograph: Getty Images/Bettman

Livestock deformities

It was not long before the hazardous waste dumping frenzy began to create some gruesome problems. Brofiscin quarry in rural south Wales, near the village of Groesfaen, became a repository for industrial waste including waste from Monsanto’s chemical plants, with all kinds of substances, including PCBs, tipped into it, sometimes under cover of darkness. The quarry, which later became known as the UK’s ‘most polluted site’, was unlined and substances leached out causing a neighbouring farm’s cattle and sheep to fall ill and calves to be born with shocking deformities.

The link between the PCBs in the landfill and the livestock death surrounding it was exposed by consultant Douglas Gowan, who was asked by the NFU in 1967 to investigate deaths and reproductive problems among livestock. Gowan alleged that his work to  publicise the pollution caused him to be subjected to threats and violence.

Following a lengthy saga – detailed in a 2007 investigation published by the Ecologist magazine – Environment Agency Wales entered into a legal battle in the US courts to make Monsanto pay to clean up the site. 

Monsanto agreed to help remediate the quarry in 2011, although it was not until 2015 that the firm, along with BP and Veolia, agreed an undisclosed sum, without admitting liability. Natural Resources Wales (NRW), which replaced Environment Agency Wales, made clear that the money was “a gesture of good will”. However, it said the total remediation costs came to £1.25m, a figure that pales into insignificance when compared with what was happening across the Atlantic. 

In the US, similar PCB disasters had unfolded that ended with the chemical company forking out enormous sums of money. In 1992, Monsanto was among six companies paying out a total of $207m in damages to 1,700 residents of upstate New York’s Love Canal, made ill by a toxic waste dump. In 2003, Solutia Inc and Monsanto agreed to pay $700m to settle claims by more than 20,000 residents of Anniston, Alabama, over PCB contamination from its old chemical plant. And in June this year, Bayer – which completed a takeover of Monsanto in 2018 – agreed to pay $650m to settle class-action claims by 2,500 cities, counties and ports over historic PCB contamination. 

The story of Stoneyhill

Back in the UK, the Brofiscin saga may have reached its conclusion, but it was not the only landfill site where PCBs were deposited. Estimates vary, but at least 11 other sites have been linked to PCB waste, while Monsanto’s legacy chemical plant in Newport still to this day possesses a permit allowing it to discharge PCBs into the environment. 

Which brings me back to the reverend. Cawthorne lives near the Stoneyhill landfill in Telford and believes there are questions to be answered over why the landfills have not been designated as special sites under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. A designation would mean the regulator has responsibility for the contaminated land rather than the local authority, and that it could seek out any ‘appropriate persons’ who may be held liable for the pollution and made to pay for remediation. However, of the suspected landfills, only Brofiscin was designated a special site, despite the chemical cocktails they are known to contain. Cawthorne has been tirelessly pursuing the councils for answers. 

“It seems most strange that a pathway to remediation was established at Brofiscin and remediation payments were made, yet now the Environment Agency claims it’s too complex to deal with the other sites in the same family in exactly the same way. What are they scared of?” he asks.

Two industrial waste landfills – Sutton Walls and Stoneyhill – have previously been linked to PCB waste, but ENDS has been unable to verify the claims. Both are in the hands of local councils. A spokesman for the EA confirmed it did not have regulatory responsibility for the sites, but added they had been investigated and found that “remediation was not required”. 

Telford and Wrekin Council says it is “not aware of any environmental pollution within the vicinity of the [Stoneyhill] site” and that “visual inspections are carried out weekly around the site by trained engineers” as well as council ecologists and Shropshire Wildlife Trust ecologists “periodically check[ing] the condition of the site and its environs”. Ponds at the periphery of the site are “sampled regularly and tested for water quality” and “gas monitoring is carried out fortnightly at the periphery of the site to ensure there is no breach of the landfill liner”, it said.

Herefordshire Council, responsible for Sutton Walls, said its records indicated the site’s waste included “industrial, commercial, household, special waste and liquid sludge” but that investigations showed it didn’t meet the criteria to be determined a special site and did not need remediating. To the council’s knowledge, it is “not being monitored at this time”.

Discoloured stream running out of Brofiscin quarry, south Wales, in 2007. PCB-containing waste was disposed of here in the 1960s and early 1970s. Photograph: Jeff Morgan 13/Alamy Stock Photo

Brofiscin’s ‘sister’

More sites have been identified in Wales. Maendy, a ‘sister’ landfill to Brofiscin located close by has been recorded as containing PCBs, but unlike Brofiscin was not designated a special site and so has been left to Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council to deal with. It says it has not carried out any investigations to determine whether Maendy is a special site and “has not considered whether the site needs to be determined as contaminated land”. 

The council’s stance comes despite evidence that leachate from the landfill has harmed wildlife. A Southampton University study on leachate discharge from Maendy found the landfill had polluted the Nant Ty’r Arlywdd for 800 metres and that the leachate was toxic to laboratory-raised water lice and freshwater shrimps.

NRW’s geoscience technical manager Trystan James says Brofiscin was designated a special site because it is located on carboniferous limestone. “That’s one criteria of a potential special site, because it’s good for water quality and could be used for drinking water – Brofiscin was designated for the geology, not the contents”. 

Maendy does not sit on carboniferous limestone, says James. “At Maendy, it’s the same material but we’re not really involved because it doesn’t meet the criteria, it’s on sandstone.” However, there’s a “willing landowner in discussion with NRW about installing a treatment plant”, he says. These discussions with Veolia have been going on for a couple of years. “It’s the nature of things, it’s trial and error to get the right treatment plant, you need to carry out trials to make sure the tech you want to employ is robust enough to last the summers and  winters,” says James. 

 Under contaminated land rules, if a site has an acid tar lagoon on it, then it should qualify as a special site. But despite this, the acid tar lagoon and Monsanto chemical waste tip site at the Llwyneinion complex in Wrexham, which is thought to contain more than 1,100 chemical drums dumped since the 1960s, is another site that has not been designated and remains in the hands of the council. The dark lagoon is flanked by trees and its perimeter is ringed with a black fence dotted intermittently with bright red ‘DANGER’ signs. 

James says the council asked NRW to take a look at the site “back in the day when there was funding available from the government”.

“The real risk was people getting in there but before they asked us [to investigate], Wrexham Council put six or seven-foot palisade fencing around the entire site. So one of the risks was removed before we did our investigation,” he says. 

Lagoon fire

In terms of environmental risks, the investigation concluded there were no significant pollutant linkages. “The lagoon caught fire about 30 or 40 years ago [1980], so a lot of the volatile stuff would have burnt off,” says James. It burned for a number of days – no one knows what caused the fire.

“It’s quite difficult material to investigate, because when it gets hot it’s like plasticine and when it’s cold it’s rock hard so it’s a particularly difficult site to get an understanding of. 

“We did monitor it – it would have been for about a year to take account of the seasons and the rise and fall in groundwater. When we handed it back to the local authority we said there was no evidence this site is having an effect on the local environment – it’s not meeting standards to be classed as contaminated land,” says James. 

“We fulfilled our legal remit to investigate it and Wrexham said they would keep an eye on it. They haven’t made any noises that they want us to go back to it.”

But James says the legislation is “clumsy” and often all that is required to break the pollution pathways as required under the regulations is for someone “put a big fence up”. “There are a lot of old mines in Wales where people go on bikes, and the local authorities’ solution is to put big fences up so people can’t get on, and that’s sufficient action under the law to break the linkage.”

The legislation also requires local authorities to inspect their burroughs “from time to time” but “it’s not strong enough”, says James. “It doesn’t say every year or every five years, so it’s up to local authorities how they implement the regime. And under the legislation we have to be asked by the local authorities to go back and do an inspection if it looks like something’s changed.”

Art work: Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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Licensed to discharge

Today, more than 40 years after PCB production ceased in the UK, a permit remains in place allowing their discharge into the environment from Monsanto’s old chemical works site at Newport, rather than into the foul sewer system as is more typical for industrial sites. At the Newport site, where legacy chemicals such as PCBs, trichlorobenzene and pentachlorophenol remain in the ground under the existing installation, NRW has approved the discharge of the substances directly into the Severn Estuary near to a number of environmentally important areas, via a five-kilometre long pipe. 

Solutia, which was spun out of Monsanto in 1997 and subsequently acquired by US chemical firm Eastman, currently operates the site. It “gathers all the manufacturing process effluents, surface water collection, cooling water blowdowns/leaks and on-site sewage into one combined stream, adjusted for pH [using lime slurry or hydrochloric acid] and is discharged (outside of low tide) through a dedicated pipeline into the Severn Estuary at a point that is 1km beyond the low-tide mark”, confirms a statement from NRW. 

The regulator’s statement also confirms that legacy contaminants have been leaking back into the installation drainage system. 

It says Solutia has “taken a number of steps to minimise legacy ingress that have included capping and lining areas of the site, converting underground effluent pipes to overground pipes/channels, lining pipes. Most recently a reed bed system has been constructed. The releases from the historic activity are now primarily dependent upon rainfall and the level of risk has been judged to be below harm thresholds”. 

NRW adds the permit requires “weekly monitoring of the discharge for PCBs (among other substances) and a weekly mass limit has been set of 100 grams per week. Previously the limit was 200g/week, but as the site has carried out some ground remediation, ground capping and sewer repairs/replacement, the limit was reduced”. 

The monitoring data is reported quarterly to NRW by Solutia – under an operator self monitoring scheme – and the sampling and analysis are assessed by the regulator. 

The latest monitoring submission for the period from July to September 2019 “declares an average weekly emission of 6.7g. The former pollution inventory records annual emissions of 2.5 kilograms in 2004, reducing to 0.634kg in 2014. From 2015 onwards the pollution inventory was replaced by the European pollutant release and transfer register and the annual release figure for 2018 was 0.53kg”. ENDS has seen documentation that shows average weekly emissions to be 7.3g, not 6.7g.

Dr Paul Johnston, from Greenpeace’s research laboratory at the University of Exeter, says the terms of the permit indicate an acknowledgement that “remediation is not going to be a likely outcome and they’re moving to constrain the... mass migration of these contaminants off the site. It’s better than nothing but it’s not perfect. It never will be perfect”. 

He adds: “Let’s face it, it might be relatively minor... emissions from these sites into the wider environment but they’re not insignificant, it’s going to go on for a long time and the actual reserves of material on those sites [could be] really quite considerable.”

Redirecting traffic

In 2016, when planners were looking at building the M4 corridor around Newport, they noted that the Solutia site had a “number of waste disposal areas including an engineered cell (known as the ‘PCB cell’) containing buried chemical (mainly PCBs) waste, as well as a historic inert and an active industrial landfill”. 

They decided they would rather build around it than disturb it. “To achieve this, the motorway viaduct over the Solutia site  has been designed such that the PCB cell is bridged and the viaduct piers and foundations would be constructed outside the PCB cell,” reads the environmental statement. “The bridging over the PCB cell would also enable the cell to be regularly inspected, monitored and maintained to allow Solutia to maintain its integrity.”

The statement goes on to say that soil testing identified “elevated concentrations of some heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and PCBs within the landfill area and external areas outside the PCB cell”.

NRW says it has “not received any approach in respect of the site from the relevant local authority under the contaminated land regulations” and so “the site does not have any specific designation under this regime”.

A side of toxins

So what does any of this matter? Well, quite a lot if you’re an otter, seal, dolphin, killer whale or bird of prey. Essentially anything high up the trophic scale. PCBs bioaccumulate, which means the higher up the food chain you are, the greater your PCB load is likely to be.

This is seriously bad news for orcas, according to researchers from Aarhus University and the Zoological Society of London, whose study showed that PCBs could lead to half the world’s killer whale population disappearing within just 30-50 years. 

The researchers found as much as 1,300 milligrams of PCBs per kilogram in the orcas’ blubber, which considering that other studies have found that animals with PCB levels as low as 50mg/kg of tissue may show signs of infertility and have severe impacts on the immune system, is extremely troubling. 

Orcas are suffering most around the UK, Brazil, the Strait of Gibraltar and the north-east Pacific, where populations have already been slashed by half during the 50 years PCBs have been around, according to the research. Newborns are rarely seen in these waters. 

In more gloomy news for cetaceans, last year a study found harbour porpoise calves around the UK had higher levels of PCBs in their blubber than their mothers who had transferred the toxic chemicals to them via their milk, at a crucial time in their development.

Rosie Williams, lead author and PhD researcher at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and Brunel University, concluded it is crucial to identify the sources and pathways in which the chemicals are entering the oceans. 

The porpoises are having a worse time of it off the west coast, says Williams. “We analysed the concentrations of PCBs in harbour porpoises that stranded around the UK coastline and found that levels in animals that stranded on the west coast of England and Wales are declining at a slower rate than the rest of the UK and may still be present at levels thought to be a health risk to these animals.

“We believe the most likely explanation for this is that PCBs are continuing to enter the environment at a higher rate in this area as this is where PCBs were traditionally produced, therefore there may be higher amounts of legacy PCBs in the region resulting from contemporary releases.”

A recent OSPAR assessment of PCBs in sediments showed that while concentrations are dropping in some places, they remain stubbornly level down the west side of the UK.

“The study found that there was no significant downward trend in the Irish and Scottish west coast and that mean concentrations were higher in the Irish Sea than the northern North Sea and the Irish and Scottish west coast,” says Williams.

Birds at risk

PCBs have also been troubling birds. Lee Walker runs the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme today, which stopped measuring PCBs in birds in the early 2000s but retains years of data. “At the time the survey stopped looking at PCBs, it was still very much a mixed message,” says Walker. “For some species like golden eagles we’d seen a decline from the highs in around the 1980s quite significantly, but the PCBs were still there. But for sparrowhawk or kestrel there wasn’t a clear decline,” he says, adding that a “significant proportion of sea eagle eggs” showed PCB toxicological values associated with poor reproduction, something of a problem for the recently introduced species.

Herons too have fallen victim to the chemical legacy. Between 1996 and 2005, many were found to have deformities and broken bones at a nature reserve in Besthorpe, Nottinghamshire. In 2005, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust said that 24 out of 105 heron chicks had died. 

Janice Bradley, head of nature recovery at the trust remembers it clearly. “The heron chicks had terrible deformities for several years, which Environment Agency research from collected dead chicks and eggs showed were caused by metabolic bone disease. The conclusion was that the lack of calcium uptake and proper metabolism of calcium was most probably caused by a chemical agent, possibly PCBs, but the birds also appeared to have quite a poor diet. I helped to ring the herons a few times in this period and some of the leg deformities were awful to see.”

A DEFRA report concluded that the levels of PCBs and dioxins in the heron nestlings were “sufficiently high to suggest that this is the underlying cause of the deformities”. It noted “the presence of fly-ash lagoons which were used until the 1970s”. The site is in an area “which formerly had many coal-fired power stations, e.g. Cottam, High Marnham, [and which] may be a source of dioxins and PCBs leaching into areas where the herons feed”.

The problem was not confined to Nottinghamshire. Eggs from Cheshire colonies had also raised “concerns due to their very high residue levels of PCBs/dioxins suggesting the problem is not localised”, DEFRA continued.

PCB ‘reservoirs’

Johnston, who has spent much of his career studying chemical pollution, says that today there are “huge reservoirs” of PCBs and other chemicals in the Irish Sea and Liverpool Bay, which was the “centre of the chlorine industry”. He believes “we should be seeking to isolate and minimise all these toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative organochlorine nasties to the maximum extent possible”. As a result, the ultimate responsibility for dealing with the issue is likely to be deferred to future generations, he argues.  

The problem of PCBs “hasn’t gone away”, he warns. “And it’s not going to go away any time soon unless people take the bull by the horns and start to address it. But of course all the financial incentives are completely against that. A lot of people don’t realise how serious it was and how serious it still is, in terms of the latent problem that still exists.” 

Chief executive of NGO coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link Dr Richard Benwell thinks that more attention should be given to persistent pollutants. “In light of growing evidence of the potency and persistence of a range of synthetic chemicals, the government should order an urgent review of all discharge permits for persistent pollutants, which should be published alongside a review of their cumulative effects on the environment and public health,” he says.

“In particular, decades-old licences to discharge banned substances like PCBs surely warrant review and public scrutiny. With marine wildlife suffering and freshwater ecosystems all failing on chemical quality, many people would be shocked to know that discharges like this are still permitted.”

Benwell wants the government’s forthcoming chemicals strategy to “be the platform for public disclosure and a public debate about the long-lived pollutants we will tolerate in our waters”.

For CHEM Trust campaigner Dr Julie Schneider, the “story of PCBs is a lesson to us on why we need to take precautionary action as soon as we fear that a chemical has an impact on wildlife and ourselves, especially when these chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment”, she says. 

“But unfortunately we seem to be repeating the same mistakes with the PFAS chemicals... [which are] ubiquitous in the environment and we know that they are even more persistent than PCBs. So far it has taken 10 years to bring in a global ban on only two of the over 4,000 chemicals in this group. If we continue at this rate it will take generations to ban all these very persistent PFAS chemicals.”

PFAS substances continue to be produced and PCBs have not gone away, they cannot go away. They were designed to persist and their effects, much like this story, will go on and on.

Bayer and Eastman, which now has Solutia as a subsidiary, have been approached for comment. 

8 legacy landfills thought to contain hazardous waste

There are more than 21,000 historic landfills across England and Wales. It is not known how many contain hazardous waste. 

Brofiscin, Newport: The notorious landfill site whose contents, including PCBs, made a neighbouring farm’s livestock sick (see main text).

Maendy, Newport: Sister site to Brofiscin, Maendy sits unlined and unremediated alongside Welsh farmland and has received similar wastes to Brofiscin (see main text).

Sutton Walls, Herefordshire: Industrial and chemical waste was tipped into the site of an Iron Age hill fort. Privately owned by a conservation group, it is unlined and remediated (see main text). 

Stoneyhill, Telford: Telford and Wrekin Council says the site is lined and unremediated, having received “domestic, commercial, industrial, medical/surgical/veterinary wastes and ‘difficult wastes’. Around 140 BSE carcasses, with heads and spinal columns removed, were also deposited here, it says.

Acid tar lagoon and chemical waste tip complex, Llwyneinion: The contamination pathway has been broken by the erection of a fence, says Natural Resources Wales (see main text). 

Glebelands, Newport: This 8.1-hectare site received assorted chemical and industrial wastes from the 1950s, leaving it contaminated with PCBs, arsenic, mercury, oil and asbestos. A school, factory and athletics stadium have been built over part of it.

Penrhos quarry, Caerphilly: The site has been remediated and developed with a mix of more than 600 houses and retail and business premises. The cleanup involved the excavation and sorting of more than 500,000 cubic metres of materials. About 140,000 tonnes of contaminated solid waste and six million litres of contaminated water and liquid waste were removed, according to the council. 

Pitsea, Basildon: Veolia, which part-owns and operates the site, says it is “engineered and managed to high Environment Agency standards and in accordance with the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016”. It is now partly a nature reserve and is currently undergoing restoration which is “due to conclude in 2027”. Veolia says it is committed to managing the environmental impact of the landfill for 60 years following restoration and that it now uses the “gas that is produced by buried waste to generate green energy” which is fed into the grid.

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