For more than a decade now people living near Walley’s Quarry landfill have had to put up with the stench of decomposing waste invading their communities.
Residents in neighbouring Silverdale and Thistleberry have regularly complained about the issue, which has often been taken up by councillors and MPs.
But investigations have found that operator Red Industries is compliant with the law as it stands, meaning no enforcement action can be taken.
Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Aaron Bell, though, believes these current rules are ‘not fit for purpose’ and says there needs to be tighter regulation of the odours produced by landfills.
Mr Bell raised the issue of Walley’s Quarry in Parliament, telling the Westminster Hall debate the stink of hydrogen sulfide – the ‘rotten egg’ gas – was a ‘blight on the community’, reaching as far as the town centre and even drifting into people’s homes.
He said the odour sometimes forces people to keep their windows shut in summer, and could exacerbate health conditions such as asthma.
Mr Bell suggested the Environment Agency needed more powers, and the bar for using such powers should be set lower.
At the moment, action can only be taken on health grounds if emissions breach global standards set by the World Health Organisation.
Mr Bell said: “I think the Environment Agency needs a stronger hand in dealing with operators. I think my constituents would agree with me when I say at the present time the EA are a little bit toothless in dealing with issues as they arise. What is really needed is an empowered agency, able to properly hold operators accountable.
“More generally, I do believe the current regulations governing odour are not fit for purpose. A site’s smells may not be causing health issues, as judged by the World Health Organisation’s criteria, but that is not to say it should be allowed to smell.
“As the example of Walley’s landfill site highlights, an operator may be compliant with their permit and their planning permission but it doesn’t mean they aren’t causing offence to their neighbours.
“As one of the richest and most developed countries in the world we should be aspiring to higher standards than the bare minimum stipulations of the WHO. I would argue the bar of statutory nuisance is too high.
“In my view the current level of odour in Silverdale and other communities is not fair to residents. It has a significant impact on their quality of life, even though it is at a legally permissible level. I think this needs to change.”
Mr Bell also believes that, due to the subjective nature of odour, communities should be given more of a say in determining if there is an issue.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow, who represented the government in the debate, said she ‘fully sympathised’ with the residents in Newcastle, but reiterated the fact Red Industries was compliant with the current rules.
She suggested the issues at Walley’s Quarry could be dealt with at a local level, mentioning Newcastle Borough Council’s recent decision to launch a scrutiny inquiry.
Ms Pow also said Red Industries had been ‘proactive’ in installing new gas extraction wells, which she hoped would result in reduced odours in future.
She said: “I do sympathise, obviously, with residents who have raised complaints about the odour. No landfill will ever be completely odour-free – however, the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not be causing offence.
“Walley’s Quarry landfill is operated under an environmental permit since 2005, and it’s been actively managed for municipal and industrial non-hazardous waste.
“The EA has undertaken specialist continuous air quality monitoring, including for hydrogen sulfide, from July 2017 to February 2018, and again from January to June 2019, and the monitoring found the emissions to be within all relevant air quality limits.
“I fully sympathise with my Honourable Friend’s constituents, who have felt the need to raise their concerns about the odour. I am pleased that the EA and local partners are taking local action and I hope the introduction of those additional gas wells demonstrate that the operator is trying to be proactive.”
Ms Pow also said the government was committed to the ‘reduce, recycle and reuse’ approach to waste management, as demonstrated by the new Environment Bill, which she said would result in less material ending up in landfill in the first place.
But this will come as little comfort to the residents near Walley’s Quarry. The landfill’s current permit will allow Red Industries to dump waste there for another six years.
A spokesman for Red Industries said: “Red Industries operate a compliant landfill site in Silverdale. We echo the facts presented by The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, in her thorough response to Mr Bell.
“The site operates under an environmental permit regulated by the Environment Agency and we have a detailed site management plan in place. The Environment Agency’s report into Air Quality in Silverdale is publicly available and shows emissions from Walleys Landfill to be within all relevant health and air quality limits.”