Special investigation: Rolls-Royce may have dumped hazardous blue asbestos into controversial toxic tip near Derbyshire village

The former waste dump known as LS01 - marked in red. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.
The former waste dump known as LS01 - marked in red. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.

Rolls-Royce may have dumped hazardous blue asbestos into a Derbyshire waste tip shrouded in mystery and controversy.

In 1976, Derbyshire County Council had suggested that the aero-engine manufacturer, based in Derby, dispose of tonnes of the dangerous material in a controversial Somercotes waste dump.

A map marking the location of the River Amber, River Erewash, Somercotes, Lower Somercotes and Alfreto. Image from Google.

A map marking the location of the River Amber, River Erewash, Somercotes, Lower Somercotes and Alfreto. Image from Google.

Newspaper reports at the time document that the firm intended to dump the blue asbestos in Crich but moved to its sights to Somercotes after negative public reaction and at the suggestion of the county council.

It is not known whether the firm followed through with this intent.

The mysterious tip, known as LS01, had been operated through the 70s and 80s at the top of Norman Road in Somercotes.

Little is known about the site, which was licensed by Derbyshire County Council for the dumping of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste.

A map marking the location of the River Amber, River Erewash, LS01 and LS41. Image from Google.

A map marking the location of the River Amber, River Erewash, LS01 and LS41. Image from Google.

However, an unofficial list compiled by tip workers at the time showed waste which had not been licensed being tipped.

Residents also complained that materials were often tipped at night time, which was also a breach of conditions.

In 1976, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that Rolls-Royce intended to dump tonnes of blue asbestos at a well-established tip in Lower Somercotes.

Consistent reference in articles at the time is made to Norman Road, Lower Birchwood, Somercotes.

The area on which the mysterious tip lies is off the top of Norman Road and covers land towards Birchwood Lane. The area is referred to locally as bridging Lower Birchwood and Lower Somercotes.

READ MORE: Special investigation: Councillor fears toxic tip ‘putting lives at risk’ in Derbyshire village
The county council said that the private tip had been “used for blue asbestos and other toxic industrial waste before” and was “well away from habitation”.

Today, the tip at Norman Road is directly next to a house, and there are more than a dozen homes on the road in total.

Joan Wright, a resident at the time, had protested against the plans for dumping the toxic waste, saying that the tip was just 20 yards from her house.

Rolls-Royce had initially intended to dump the asbestos at Hilt’s Quarry in Crich, but public opposition led to the change in plans, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported in August 1976.

The report says that “tentative approaches had been made from a firm of contractors on behalf of Rolls-Royce”.

It says: “There has been opposition from residents of Lower Birchwood (in Somercotes) to the tipping of industrial waste at this site on the grounds of smell, dust and that it constitutes an eyesore.

“The tip (LS01) is thought to be safe because a deep layer of clay prevents any contamination of nearby watercourses.”

READ MORE: Special investigation: Were horse cancer deaths down to grazing on Derbyshire toxic tip?
In a later article, Derbyshire county councillor Joe Heathcote then started a battle to prevent Rolls-Royce from dumping the dangerous blue asbestos in the Lower Somercotes tip.

He said to the Derby Evening Telegraph: “I will do everything possible to prevent asbestos waste being tipped there. The people of Somercotes have suffered long enough.”

The article says that Rolls-Royce had been working with the county council to find another site instead of Crich and had approached Cambro Contractors Ltd, which owned the Somercotes site.

Amber Valley councillor John Roberts said at the time: “The asbestos would not be the worst material in there.”

At a later meeting, also reported on by the Derby Evening Telegraph in 1976, Coun Peter Staton said that people in the area were very concerned at the proposal to tip blue asbestos at the site.

Councillors were told that “blue asbestos was not one of the toxic wastes listed in the current planning permission for the tip”, despite the county council encouraging the dumping and having issued the waste disposal license for the site.

They were told that all waste was tipped into a lagoon which had clay at the bottom and sides and then had a clay top put on before 20 feet of “overburden” was added.

However, in its historic meeting minutes, the county council says that its staff witnessed “a fair amount of tarry substances” being tipped into the landfill in 1977, with no clay lining to prevent chemicals leaching into the surrounding area.

Whether there was a clay-lining or not has not been confirmed.

Rolls-Royce was told to turn to the Somercotes tip at the suggestion of the county council, councillors were told.

The location has now come under the spotlight once again after a number of planning applications have been submitted for new homes on or near the site.

Last June, plans for 200 houses were approved on a site known as Nether Farm off Birchwood, 93 metres north from the former dump – these plans are now the subject of a judicial review, led by local campaigners.

A further 200 homes had been mooted for the rugby club, but were stopped at appeal over fears about contaminated soil.

There are said to be further plans for around another 200 houses on this site too, to the west off Bonnington Drive.

The land is owned by the Diocese of Derby – as detailed by the Land Registry.

Plans for 99 homes near to the site were refused by the borough council last month after Cllr John McCabe said that he feared “people’s lives could be at risk” from the “toxic tip” nearby.

At a meeting of the county council’s south area planning committee in September 1976, Cllr Joe Heathcote said: “This tip has been a terrible nuisance for many years and this is the time to say they have had enough. Nobody knows the health hazard that could arise.”

A Rolls-Royce spokesman said: “Companies are required to retain waste disposal records for three years, and it is almost certain that they no longer exist for Rolls-Royce waste disposal in the 1970s.

“Rolls-Royce will have been subject to the law regarding any disposal of asbestos, which would require any waste to be disposed of at appropriately-licensed sites, legally permitted to take such material.”

The dumps in Somercotes had operated during a time when there were less stringent restrictions on what could and should be disposed of – and how to contain it.

There was an aim to tie this up with the Control of Pollution Act in 1974.

This had also followed the 1972 Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act – before which there was no restriction on where or how to dump hazardous materials and no requirement to keep records of their disposal.

Blue asbestos is the most harmful form of the material, banned by law in the UK in 1985.

If breathed in, it can cause serious diseases and death through the cancer mesothelioma.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring, fibrous mineral that was predominantly used as a building material in the UK between the 1950s and 1980s. Mined in countries such as Russia, Brazil,

South Africa and China, asbestos fibres were woven into fabrics or mixed in cement and used all around the world.

Materials made with asbestos are strong, incombustible, heat-resistant and sound-absorbent, making asbestos an attractive material for electrical and building insulation, among other uses.

There are three main types of asbestos:

- White asbestos (chrysotile) – the most common

- Brown asbestos (amosite) – which has a higher cancer risk

- Blue asbestos (crocidolite) – has the thinnest fibres and becomes more easily lodged in the lungs