Special investigation: Were horse cancer deaths down to grazing on Derbyshire toxic tip?

The toxic tip in Somercotes. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.
The toxic tip in Somercotes. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.

Horses which grazed on an historic toxic tip died from cancer in quick succession and locals believe the two are intrinsically linked.

A number of residents on Norman Road in Somercotes, bordering a mysterious hazardous waste dump, have also contracted several forms of cancer and some have died from the disease.

Evidence of drilling work to check for ground and water quality can be found in fields surrounding the former waste dump. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.

Evidence of drilling work to check for ground and water quality can be found in fields surrounding the former waste dump. Photo by Eddie Bisknell.

It is not known whether the ailments are linked to the toxic and carcinogenic waste tipped in their thousands of tonnes at the former dump, known as LS01.

A farmer often grazes his cattle there.

Public Health England has previously said that there has been no notable increase in cancer cases in the area.

The Environment Agency has also said that ‘increased levels of potentially harmful chemicals’ had not been found in nearby water sources.

A Public Spaces Protection (Gating) Order put in place by Amber Valley Borough Council prevents anyone from walking around the border of the former waste dump LS01 itself

A Public Spaces Protection (Gating) Order put in place by Amber Valley Borough Council prevents anyone from walking around the border of the former waste dump LS01 itself

But last month, an Amber Valley borough councillor said that people’s lives could be ‘at risk’ from the former tip and that it could be distributing “airborne and water-borne” contaminants.

Campaigners also dispute the claims that the site is safe.

Having hired their own experts, they say contamination has been found some 300 metres from the tip.

It is not known whether the discovered contamination is the beginning, centre or end of the suspected leaching material.

Kevin and Jean Fox, Norman Road residents since 1987.

Kevin and Jean Fox, Norman Road residents since 1987.

The former waste dump had been operated by Cambro Contractors Limited, formerly both Cambro Contractors Ltd and Cambro Waste Products Limited.

Very little is known or kept on file about the former dump, which had operated through much of the 70s – under a license issued by Derbyshire County Council. It has come back into the spotlight after several applications for houses in the area.

The council says that it knew that the firm had dumped waste at the site both before and after the contract was issued and expired.

In its historic meeting minutes, the county council says that its staff also 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.

This is despite previous assurances to the Derby Evening Telegraph at the time.

READ MORE: Special investigation: Councillor fears toxic tip ‘putting lives at risk’ in Derbyshire village

Cambro had told the Telegraph, in 1976, that the tip was safe because there was a 20-foot deep layer of clay which prevented materials from leaching.

It was also to be capped with further clay and another 20 feet of “overburden”.

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

Cambro was also involved in a controversial waste dump it oversaw in north Derbyshire in the 70s and 80s.

The New Scientist reported in 1981 that Cambro’s site in Morton, just south of Clay Cross, had been fraught with controversy and had also seen the death of numerous horses and dogs in quick succession.

It had reported that three horses that had been grazing on land flooded with water from near the tip had died within days of each other.

Two vets who had performed the post mortems on the horses had told the magazine that the symptoms were ‘absolutely consistent with phenolic poisoning’.

Other animal deaths had also been blamed on the Morton tip, including five St Bernard dogs – two of which had died from malignant tumours in the ovaries and lungs.

The magazine had spoken to a waste disposal officer at the time and found that Derbyshire had a poor reputation for its attitude towards toxic waste.

They had told the New Scientist: “Derbyshire is a soft touch for toxic wastes. It is attractive to people who want to dispose of dangerous materials, but don’t want to be rigorously policed.”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) spoke to residents on Norman Road and also on Cockshutt Lane – both of which border the former Somercotes tip.

One resident, Jean Fox, says that there is believed to be enough hazardous material buried at the site ‘to wipe out Europe’.

She and her husband, Kevin, claim a man who had worked on the former tips had quit his job after a day, out of distaste at the work being carried out and what was being dumped.

An employee of the Coal Board is also thought to have confirmed the huge scale of hazardous and potentially radioactive waste buried at the site.

The couple, who have lived on the road,  say they have been told that hazardous material from the huge Coalite Fuels and Chemicals Limited works near Bolsover has been dumped in the tip near their home.

They, along with other residents on Norman Road, confirmed that there had been a number of residents who had contracted cancer and had died or were currently living with it and other long-term health conditions.

These cases are among just a small number of residents who live on the road, which contains just over a dozen houses.

Included in this number are a married couple who had lived in the house at the top of Norman Road, adjoining the tip itself.

The couple had both contracted pancreatic cancer after previously been in good health.

Meanwhile, another woman, in her 80s, had died from cancer.

She had previously told neighbours that when she was a child, and the tip was in operation, she had looked out of her bedroom window at night time and seen people in biohazard suits dumping waste into the site.

The site was not licensed for waste to be tipped at night time.

One person on the road is known to be ‘fighting’ cancer at the moment while another person is living with a long-term condition.

Meanwhile, another resident in their 30s is also known to have cancer.

One resident confirmed that their husband died of bowel cancer three years ago – but was unsure as to whether that was linked to the tip or not.

Another married couple close to the site, who live in nearby Pye Bridge, downstream from the tips, both contracted cancer – one of which, the husband, succumbed to the disease, while the wife survived.

The couple were known to have purposely not grown vegetables in their garden due to the smells and water which would sometimes run red.

Another residents is thought to have died from a ‘strange illness’ which was not identified.

One resident said that there are a range of illnesses and chronic diseases that may or may not be attributed to the landfills.

A resident and campaigner, who spoke to the LDRS, alleges that these conditions may well be linked to the former tip.

They say that other health issues in the area have previously been linked to the area’s mining history, but may be linked to the former tips instead, one off Norman Road and the other just below – now the home of Amber Valley Rugby Club.

Mr Fox said: “Whatever is up there is seeping into the land. We just don’t want people disturbing it or digging it up – who knows what would go up in the air or in the water.

“We have learned over the years what the dangers could be.”

Mrs Fox said: “We had no idea about the tip before we moved in, if we had we might not have moved here at all.

“We carried out all the checks too, and nothing was flagged up. We would have thought the Land Registry would say something.

“What we feel is that if there is a foreign substance down there, it will resurface eventually.

“Apparently there are a lot of tyres stacked over the top of it, but that doesn’t give us any comfort.”

They said that in around 2000, two horses had been grazing on the tip and both died after contracting cancer - with the younger horse getting the disease and dying before its mother.

There are no records of who currently owns the former tip on the Land Registry.

However, the neighbouring land at Amber Valley Rugby Club’s base is owned by M.W. Trustees Limited - part of wealth management firm Mattioli Wood PLC, based in Leicester.

A Cockshutt Lane resident, who did not want to be named, said that she had not heard of anyone in the area with long-term health conditions and had lived at her home, close to the bottom of the former tip, for two years.

She said that some residents were ‘scaremongering to prevent houses being built in the area.

The resident said that she would be ‘most surprised’ if the tip was leaching and said that cattle were frequently seen grazing on the land with seemingly no issues.

She said: “There are tips all over Derbyshire, there are unnaturally smooth hills like this all over the place that are former tips.

“I wouldn’t have bought my house if there was any evidence of the tip leaking, I have no fear whatsoever.”

Peter and Mary Lane have lived on Cockshutt Lane for more than 20 years.

Mr Lane said: “The tip hasn’t affected us and we have raised four grandchildren here – and nobody had any illness of any kind.

“The key thing is don’t dig it up.

“If it is dug up then that will cause problems, but we don’t know if it has and we definitely shouldn’t disturb it.

“But it is all rubbish about people being ill.

“It hasn’t been hidden away, everyone knows it is there, cattle graze there and there have been no deformities in the cattle.”

Mrs Lane said: “We don’t know if it has been disturbed or spread up to here.”

The previous residents who the LDRS spoke to denied that they were scaremongering, saying that they have genuine concerns.

Some of the substances dumped on the site, said the Secretary of State, include a chemical group known as dioxins.

A dioxin was one of the main components which made up Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used to eliminate forest cover and crops during the Vietnam War – 1954-1975.

Scientists say that the ‘defoliant’ causes cancer and heart diseases, along with an array of birth defects for the descendants of people affected by it.

In the 1980s, intensive analysis of some samples taken from the former Somercotes waste dump found harmful levels of an array of toxic materials – including mercury, cadmium, pentachlorophenol, napthalene and cyanide.

Pentachlorophenol was found in high concentrations and is a ‘red list substance’.

It is an environmental hazard and a health hazard and had been widely used as a pesticide until the 80s when it was restricted to certified users.

It is known as a ‘probable carcinogen’ and exposure to high levels can cause other health risks.

Cadmium is also a carcinogen and has toxic effects on the kidney, skeletal and respiratory systems.

LS01, run by Cambro Contractors Ltd, operated from 1973 until 1980 – with an estimated 625,000 tonnes of waste dumped during its lifespan, including produce tipped before and after the license was issued.

Official reports from the 90s said many substances found on the site are known to be carcinogenic and at least partially radioactive.

The dumps 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.

Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service