Greenwich residents express concern over development on heavily contaminated site

Asbestos and high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and carcinogenic PAHs have been found on a proposed site for new housing for adults with learning difficulties.

Local residents were dismayed to find high levels of pollutants in the soil of the old railway cutting site on Royal Hill, West Greenwich, London and are fearful of the health risks construction may pose.

The site is situated on top of a six metre deep railway cutting which was used for the London Chatham and Dover railway. This was then filled in with rubble by 1932, which “may include concrete, iron, wood, tiles, asbestos, car-tyres, vegetation etc”, according to an undated survey performed by Field Surveyors Limited. 

After the filling was complete, the site was used as a yard for scrap metal dealers and transport contractors. More recently, it served as a car park for the adjoining Met Police station. 

Residents then took over the site and transformed it into a community garden, but this was bulldozed in 2019 when the council announced its plans to replace the existing housing facility on nearby Ashburnham Grove.

MLM consulting engineers carried out a geoenvironmental report for Greenwich Borough Council in January 2020, which found above acceptable levels of pollutants on the site. Asbestos was identified in two of the thirteen samples tested. Lead present in the ground at just half a metre deep was 2260mg/kg, which is ten times the screening standard set out by DEFRA and 67mg/kg of arsenic was present at the same depth, twice the allowed screening standard. 

Benzo(a)pyrene, a harmful PAH, is almost five times the allowed screening standard at 3.8m deep, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer currently considers it the most carcinogenic PAH, according to DEFRA

Potential groundwater risk was also analysed, and the lead contamination of the site is more than 300 times the safe level specified by the UK Drinking Water Standards (DWS). Arsenic and mercury were also detected in excess of DWS limits. 

The safety of site users, site workers and local residents were all causes for concern in the report, as well as indications from the online unexploded ordnance (UXO) which indicates that the site lies in an area of high risk of potential UXO.

Additional to the chemical and pollutant risks, the report notes that in a previous survey, Field Surveyors Ltd commented that “ground movements associated with trenching, piling, earthmoving and haulage in and around buildings could result in lateral movement of adjacent residential dwellings.” 

Recent ground investigations in 2016 caused a three foot hairline crack in on the first floor and others in the basement of a nearby property. The work came to an end when it was discovered that the ground was “highly unstable at 2.5 metres deep”.

Greenwich borough council then applied for planning permission in March 2020, shortly before the coronavirus lockdown and the plans were approved in June 2020. Planning for the site has been refused twice before, in 2013 and in 2017, for larger housing.

The approved proposals will see a house for four adults and four one-bedroom flats built, plus a training office with a staff bedroom, with construction due to begin in May and an estimated completion of March 2022.

Local residents, who would prefer not to be named, said: “I’ve always loved Greenwich, but this has been really stressful and is turning us off completely. We’ve been fighting this for seven years, meeting with everyone around here.” 

“There's also a little row of very precious shops, cheese, flowers and a butcher’s shop that people queue for miles to get into. It's one of those little niche places you get in London. God knows what it's going to do to them with all the dust and dirt that is going to appear and what health issues. I mean, I could see it really spoiling the businesses.”

A Greenwich Borough Council spokesperson said: “Our environmental consultants are formulating a strategy to deal with the environmental elements of the project. This will include a remediation strategy which will take into account the health and safety of all surrounding residents, as well as future residents of the scheme.

“Once the remediation strategy has been finalised, it will need to be signed off by Royal Greenwich as complete and posing no harm to future residents.”

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