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Frontline Scotland
"Scotland is drowning under a sea of waste"
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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
Frontline Scotland: Dirty Business

This is the transcript of the Frontline Scotland programme Dirty Business broadcast on 24 April, 2001. Reporter Ross McWilliam, Producer Andrew Martin.

Ross McWilliam: Scotland is drowning under a sea of waste. Each year, every home throws out over a ton of rubbish.

At a time when landfill sites are filling up fast and struggling to cope, the Scottish Executive has chosen to dump the post of environment minister.

But perhaps most serious of all are the increased fears about the health threat these sites pose to nearby communities.

Susannah McNab: It frightens me to think that there's something in the air that we're so close to that would cause the children harm in the future.

Baillieston Community Council, Isabel Addie: We would like the smell just to stop dead. We just¿ we don't want our kids our elderly, anybody to be actually breathing this in.

Dr David Stone, Peach Unit, Yorkhill Hospital: I wouldn't want to live there, and I can well understand people feeling that it's not appropriate to build housing in close proximity to such sites.

Ross: Tonight, Frontline Scotland investigates the toxic dumps that are littered across Scotland and we highlight the sites that can make millions of pounds for their owners, but make life a misery for people who live near them.

We decided to take a closer look at Paterson's Landfill Site in Glasgow, one of the largest city dumps in Europe and hugely profitable.

It's the size of 660 football pitches and has been taking all sorts of waste for almost fifty years. In the early days, no-one was regulating what went into it.

Nowadays, despite being in a densely populated residential area, it has permission to take half a million tons of waste a year, including cyanide, arsenic and asbestos.

Now you can't just dump anything anywhere. That's why there are official landfill sites and that's why they have licences like these.

The rules are straightforward. Any load going in should be checked for toxic or hazardous waste. It's a simple rule. But do they stick to it? Let's check it out¿..

Now if you're dumping waste at one of the 260 official landfill sites across Scotland, you have to be honest about what that waste contains. But there's also a responsibility on companies like Paterson's who are accepting the waste to inspect the load. You're supposed to play by the rules, but those rules are easily broken.

We hired a reputable firm to test them.

This load of bathroom fittings contained car batteries. We'd emptied them of dangerous acid, but they're still technically "special waste" and shouldn't be allowed in unchecked.

The first load, which had the car batteries inside it - did anyone check that when you went in?

Driver: No, definitely not. The banksman saw the battery but made no attempt for to retrieve it.

Ross: And so the batteries were dumped with all the general waste. They were noticed, but no-one took them out?

Driver: Correct, yes.

Ross: Now this is the second load of waste that we're taking into Paterson's tip. It contains garden rubbish. We're saying that this soil contains lindane - now that's a chemical that has been linked with breast cancer. Obviously it doesn't, but this should be challenged and this load disposed of safely.

Every load has to be accompanied by a Waste Transfer Note. It should state clearly what kind of rubbish is being dumped. Ours did just that, but it was replaced by Paterson's with a more general receipt, saying the waste was simply "muck". We put on the chitty that there was lindane in there. Did anyone take any notice of that?

Driver: No. The checker took out the two checks from the book and just waved me, waved me through.

Ross: And then where did you dump that rubbish?

Driver: On top of where the batteries were dumped.

Ross: So it was going nowhere special, it wasn't taking any special precautions - it was just dumped with the rest of the rubbish.

Driver: That's correct, aye.

Kevin Dunion, Chief Executive, Friends of the Earth, Scotland: Sadly, I think it's probably all too typical.

But what should have happened, of course, was that this - both of these consignments were special waste.

Neither of them should, therefore, have been accepted on to the site in the form that they came in, as far as we can see.

And with the car batteries, because of the high levels of lead and acid if the batteries had been full - again, that constitutes "special waste" and wouldn't be allowed to go on to that site and should have been turned away.

The lindane contaminated soil almost certainly should not have been accepted at all, and if, under the terms of the licence, they felt it should be accepted, then it should have been tested to see what the level of contamination was and if it exceeded the level allowed for the landfill site, it should have been turned away.

And, sadly, if it was below the level and was allowed on to the site, then that should have been noted on the Waste Transfer Note and SEPA would have been informed that lindane had been dumped on to the site.

Ross: SEPA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency - is the enforcer of the rules and regulations surrounding landfill sites.

It's been criticised for not coming down hard enough on those who break the rules, but the agency says it can only act on the information sites like Paterson's provide.

John Beveridge, Director, Scottish Environment Protection Agency: Paterson's have a duty of care, of responsibility of making sure that anything they accept is disposed of properly, and records should be taken, and we have free access to those records and there is a process of auditing what goes on to the site.

But I accept that the process perhaps is not foolproof. We are not there 365 days a year to inspect every load that goes on.

What I'm saying is that every load that does go on should be properly recorded and registered and dealt with appropriately. And if that's not the case, then we will investigate.

Ross: Three weeks after our delivery, Paterson's wrote to the company we'd used claiming they had broken the rules and were being banned from using the site in future. But of course that was too little, too late.

Paterson's had allowed the potentially hazardous waste to become mixed in with the chemical cocktail of millions of tons of rubbish already buried on the Greenoakhill site.

Frontline understands that SEPA are now investigating the incident.

Paterson's tip started taking waste in 1958 and until very recently was subject to only minimal regulation. It's that fear of the unknown, and the toxic time bomb that could be ticking away under the ground, that worries people who live nearby. Oh - and there's the awful smell as well. Susannah McNab: The smell is, I would say, disgusting. It makes¿ it turns my stomach and it makes me feel as if I'm going to be sick. In the summer, we've got a beautiful, huge back garden. I can't have anybody round.

We've tried having barbecues in the back garden - we're inundated with flies. And people don't want to sit and enjoy a nice drink and relax in the smell that's coming from the dump. You just can't do it.

Ross: Have there been times when you've regretted moving into the area?

Susannah: Most definitely, uhuh. But it's a nice area. I like the people in the area. I like the house that we live in, and I like the school - the children are settled at the school.

But I'm always saying to my husband, "Are we doing the right thing by living so close to a dump?" It frightens me to think that there's something in the air that we're so close to that would cause the children harm in the future, and we're not doing anything about it.

Ross: Susannah's isn't a lone voice. In just one month last year, SEPA received 171 complaints from local residents about the smell.

But is living next to a landfill site unhealthy or just unpleasant?

An International panel of scientific experts looked at tips across Europe. Paterson's in Glasgow was one of them. Research showed a significantly raised risk of birth defects in babies whose mothers lived near landfill sites.

Dr David Stone, Peach Unit, Yorkhill Hospital: Well the essential finding was that we found a statistically significant excess of risk em¿ associated with living close to the landfill sites.

That is, women living within a three kilometre distance from the site.. em.. appeared to have an excess risk of around 30% - which is not a huge excess, but it is large enough for us to be concerned about it.

And that finding was fairly consistent across most of the sites that we looked at around Europe.

So we are left with a positive finding, an association between a landfill site and the risk of birth defects that we haven't yet been able to fully explain. I think there is a tendency - if it's out of sight, it's out of mind.

At one time we used to see smoking chimney stacks, and it was quite clear that there was pollution going on there.

The nature of the pollution from landfill sites is much more subtle than that, it's largely invisible in fact. It doesn't make it any less real, and we shouldn't take it any less seriously for that.

Ross: And just a few weeks ago, leading medical researchers from around Europe met at a conference in Edinburgh to discuss a follow-up study which has still to be published.

Man: It's a closed meeting, I'm sorry¿.

Ross: But Frontline managed to speak to one of the researchers behind the study. She outlined their disturbing findings.

The link between landfill sites and severe health problems in new born babies was stronger and more far reaching than first feared.

Martine Vrijheid, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: In the results that we published earlier, there were defects such as spina bifida and certain heart defects.

And in this follow-up study we look at chromosome abnormalities and they include babies with Down's Syndrome and then some rarer syndromes.

One study is never enough to prove a definite link. If you look at, for example, the lung cancer and smoking link that is now very well established - that took twenty years of very hard studying to establish.

And the first epidemiological studies into smoking and lung cancer never¿ were never conclusive evidence, and em.. I think, and especially with the landfill being.. being a lot more difficult, it will take a long time to actually establish such a link.

Baillieston Community Council, Laura McEwing: We don't have the choice. We can't just say, "We don't like living here, we can move."

You know, we're stuck here, basically, and if findings come out that it is dangerous to our health, I mean, it's too late - we're here. We'd be affected.

Baillieston Community Council, Maria Bensmina: I think the concern is that nobody really cares enough to find out.

You know, they sort of pander to you and set up forums or committees or this and that, but nobody really treats it very, very seriously, maybe because they don't live here. It could be something else more sinister, we don't know.

Ross: It may be hard to prove conclusively a direct link between toxic landfill sites and health problems, but while there is at least a risk, should new homes be built near these dumps?

Scotland's largest health board thinks that's not a good idea.

Dr Harry Burns, Director Public Health, Greater Glasgow Health Board: Over the decades, we've made a lot of misjudgements around planning issues. I think we have.

We've planned big ghettos of ill health in building places like Easterhouse and Drumchapel and so on, and I think we need to apply a bit more common sense in planning.

I think there are times when common sense should overrule the law. That might be heretical, but I really feel that quite strongly, and I think to put houses in an area that, in my experience at least, is affected very significantly by smell and by other adverse environmental conditions - whether or not the law says it should go down there - I think the planners need to exert some common sense in this.

Ross: But Glasgow City Council say there isn't enough evidence to link landfill sites to ill health. With the potential for pollution, there is obviously a need for strict monitoring of sites.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is the official watchdog, but operators like Paterson's of Greenoakhill, also employ a private monitoring company to provide the Agency with extra information. Enviro-Centre is run by Professor George Fleming.

Professor George Fleming, Enviro-Centre: There's statutory requirement for monitoring. The monitoring is of water quality and also the gas emissions from the site, the air quality, and I believe it is a safe site.

It's had a number of numerous¿ er.. risk assessments done on the site, and within the knowledge that we have of the site, the risk assessments show that the site is in fact safe and does not pose a major risk in the parameters that we're looking at, that we understand in relation to human health er.. are the correct parameters.

Within our knowledge base at the present time, that site is performing very well and has always performed well.

Ross: Enviro-Centre may think this site is performing well but SEPA disagree.

John Beveridge, SEPA: Well, there's certainly been problems with Paterson's as there are with all landfill sites.

I mean, the very nature of the business is it's messy, it's dirty, and the potential to cause pollution is quite high.

So that's why there is so much regulation, that's why we put so much effort into regulating, monitoring and sampling it.

And, yes, there have been several incidents in the past, particularly in respect of odour complaints er.. but there's been ones also of dust, noise, etc.

Ross: Those problems have been serious enough in the past for SEPA to hand out legal warnings to Paterson's to clean up their act. Yet the man whose company monitors the site for the owners takes a different attitude.

Smell? What smell.

Prof George Fleming: I have visited the site on many occasions. I must admit that I have not smelt the odour which is the complaint. That's not to say the odour in that area doesn't occur.

But there are other sources of odour. Odour is part of our day and daily business of a community. I have not personally smelt the odour

The question of whether I'd live there? I live within the city. I live right within the City of Glasgow. I always have lived within the City of Glasgow and that's where I choose to live. I smell the Shieldhall Sewage Works on a regular basis, have done for twenty years. I don't complain about it.

Ross: Would it surprise you that the man in charge of monitoring that site, the private company that monitors the site, has said that he has never smelt any offensive odour coming from that site?

Dr Harry Burns: Well, I drive along the M74 not infrequently, and have made special visits to the area, and I've always smelled a smell and on at least two occasions it has been as bad as anything I have ever smelt. It does surprise me that.. that someone could make that claim.

John Beveridge: Lots of my officers have spent a lot of time investigating odour complaints.

I've been out on the site and we have quite a lot of contact with the local community. And we share their concerns that there have, on occasions, on more than one occasion certainly, been proven links to the operations at the site and odour complaints from the site.

Baillieston Community Council representative: Actually outside the kids are complaining to us, saying "Mum, it's really bad." It's nauseating, it's not sickening, it is nauseating. You're actually heaving.

Woman: It's really, really bad, the smell. It's like burning rubber, constantly.

When I was pregnant with my youngest, I was sick every day I stayed here. And we went on holiday, and when I was on holiday I wasn't sick. And I had spoken to them about it and they reckoned that it might have had something to do with it.

Ross: Something smells a bit strange when everyone but the expert, Professor Fleming, is aware of the stink that comes from the tip.

There's also concern at the relationship between Paterson's tip and the private company that is paid to monitor it.

Mr William Paterson is on the board of directors of Enviro-Centre. Some would say that relationship is far too cosy and indeed in some countries it would be banned.

Prof Fleming: He's a non-exec director - he takes no fee - and there is no connection. And he doesn't, again, have access to all the details of the company operation.

Not every executive director has, in any company, has access to the detailed business of the company.

Mr William Paterson has a great expertise in financial management and business management and he's on the board of Enviro-Centre, and only recently on the board of Enviro-Centre because we value his business acumen and we must learn from that to grow a company which is actually creating wealth for this part of the world.

Kevin Dunion: The public need to be reassured that there is no connection between the person who is profiting from operating the company and the person who is going to be monitoring it, and there's going to be an absolute separation of function between those two things.

And so then for the public expect that the expertise, the environmental expertise, the public health expertise and the legal expertise which is meant to defend the public interest, is only acting on behalf of the public and there should be no connection, therefore, between the company and that monitoring.

Ross: Mr Paterson declined an invitation to talk to Frontline.

There's also criticism of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency being tough enough on polluters. Fewer cases are prosecuted in Scotland than in England, and the fines are far lower. SEPA says it's not their fault, it's the Scottish Legal system.

John Beveridge: I would say that there's a different attitude in Scotland than there is in England, and we are working hard to try and change that.

If you look at the number of cases that appear before the courts, the number to do with environmental prosecutions is.. is low. Therefore, the priority tends to be lower compared to other cases that get a higher profile.

We have to work hard at making sure that if we think a case deserves a high profile, we get it that. But we have to live with that. That is not our prerogative, it's the procurator fiscal's prerogative.

Of course if we think something merits a case being submitted for prosecution, we would like to see that prosecution take place and a successful outcome of it. But being realistic, it doesn't happen.

And if you go to the police or you go to any other body, that is the same there. They have to go through the same process.

Kevin Dunion: I think the great difficulty for us in Scotland is that the appallingly low level of fines applied to companies who pollute in Scotland is such that it's often much more attractive for a company to risk the fine than to actually invest to clean up the pollution in the first place.

We've several examples of companies in Scotland being fined a few hundred pounds for pollution incidents which in England would attract fines of up to £20,000.

And that's, of course, even if the case is taken in the first place, because the reality is that you've got a great chance of actually getting away with it in Scotland altogether, either because you're not detected, or if you are detected, because a procurator fiscal didn't actually subsequently take the case to court.

So there's a real incentive for people simply to flout the rules and say, "We'll chance it, and if we do get caught, so what, we can afford it."

Ross: SEPA may blame the legal system for lagging behind in prosecutions and fines, but the agency has also been attacked for being too slow in tightening up regulations on toxic dumping.

Two years ago the villagers of Greengairs near Airdrie were outraged when heavily contaminated soil containing highly toxic PCBs was brought from Hertfordshire to be dumped in Scotland.

England and other European countries had tighter controls over the level of PCBs that could be buried in landfill sites.

Locals claimed Scotland was being used as a toxic dumping ground. They formed an action group, organised protests and took on the role of environmental watchdog, something they say SEPA failed to do.

Ian Lewis, Greengairs Environmental Forum: The forum was formed initially because the PCB waste coming from England overlooked other sites on route and came to Greengairs.

That was due to a lack of SEPA's management, if you like; they didn't er.. bring in European standards to Scotland where, if they had done, that waste would never have came to Scotland, therefore it probably wouldn't have been highlighted at all.

John Davies, Greengairs Forum: At the time of the PCB incident, the whole village united. I mean, we actually em¿ at one stage, actually to blockade the site to get our voice across to Shanks and actually to SEPA.

The village had just basically had enough. SEPA are the only protection we've got against the likes of these operators, and SEPA to my opinion are just not doing their job.

Ian Lewis: SEPA is just a guard dog with no teeth. They just don't have the powers.

Ross: SEPA accepts the legal limits were higher in Scotland, but they didn't pose a danger.

John Beveridge: The incident was fully investigated at the time. An assessment was done and the PCB limits, amounts and levels were all within what is perfectly normal and capable of being taken within that site.

So whether it's come from England, whether it's come from Scotland is irrelevant. It's what the adverse reaction to that going into the site on the environment, to the ground water is concerned is where we've concentrated our actions, and what we've done is prove that it wasn't a particular issue, that it was legitimate to take it in, and there has been no further incident or¿ or environmental indication that anything has shown up adversely in all the monitoring that we've done since those went into the site over a year ago.

John Davies: The people in this village deserve a good life. We stay out in the countryside, we shouldn't have to put up with these sort of problems.

That's why most of the people come to stay in the likes of a place like this, to get a good bit of fresh air and stuff, and we've been deprived of that in this area, just basically because em.. the agencies are basically allowing these landfills to operate at an unsatisfactory manners.

Ross: No-one wants a landfill site in their backyard, whether they live in the country or the City.

Paterson's have tried to sweeten things for the residents around their Glasgow dump by giving money to the community: a new bowling green and floodlights for the tennis club - just part of the cash bonanza.

On the surface, a generous gesture by the Greenoakhill site owners, but most of the money comes from a landfill tax paid by those who dump waste.

Site operators pass it on to the Treasury but they can claim some of that tax back to pay for useful environmental improvements like this doocote. It cost half a million pounds to rebuild.

Maria Bensmina: Oh, the doocote's lovely, and it's historical, it's great, but who has access? Certainly not our children. We're not going to let them walk over here on their own. There's cones that block off the entrance so you couldn't even drive down as a family.

Laura McEwing: And who wants to sit here in the smell anyway? I mean, honestly? You know, where are they going to sell the gas masks?

Ross: So was this the aim of the tax, just to fund cosmetic touches? It was set up five years ago by a British Government under pressure from Europe to clean up its act.

By imposing a hefty levy on those who bury waste, the aim was to persuade people to find alternatives to landfill, but it appears to have backfired, scarring rather than healing the landscape and driving the dumpers elsewhere.

Councillor Alistair Watson, Convenor Land Services, Glasgow City Council: The landfill tax was a good idea. It was designed to encourage recycling, but you have the downside of that where people are determined to avoid paying the tax.

It's a colossal problem where there is thousands and thousands of tons of rubbish dumped in the streets of Glasgow every single year.

How costly is that?

Councillor Watson: It's very costly. It costs £11 a ton to dump rubbish in landfill sites. And we have to respond to issues like this where it costs us to reprocess this rubbish that has illegally been dumped in the streets of Glasgow.

As a council, is it difficult for you to police fly tipping?

Councillor Watson: Very, very difficult indeed. I mean we process about three tons per year, which is the equivalent of filling George Square to the height of a double-decker bus every single year.

And presumably areas like this, once they're earmarked by fly tippers, they're used constantly?

Councillor Watson: Yes, and they become a blight on the local economy. I mean the east end of Glasgow is an area that we.. which we want to regenerate, and areas like this is a continual blight on the area.

Baillieston Community Council, Isabel Addie: The fly tipping is a horrendous problem in this area, especially - well, you see the plastic bags up there - if you just go up a wee bit to the Boghall Road - and I really think people who tip there think, well, we've got a tip, let's just extend it up the Boghall Road. It's horrendous.

We have to get these people prosecuted. They have to be told they can't do it because it is becoming.. it is extending right out. It's not just in the tip, it's coming right up the road.

And it is a hazard. It's not only a health hazard, but it's also a hazard to people driving their cars. So they really need to stop this.

Maria Bensmina: I think that¿ the whole impression is that it's just an environmental dumping ground. It's very unfortunate that we live here.

But if you've got all sorts of toxic dumping going on here, which is what we believe, then we've got fly tipping, we've got plastic trees - the children grow up thinking, well that's what the countryside looks like.

Laura McEwing: Plastic bags grow on trees!

Maria Bensmina: Plastic bags grow on trees.

For the unhappy and long suffering neighbours of Paterson's landfill site in Glasgow, the short term solution is simple.

Kevin Dunion: I don't think that that site should be allowed to continue, and we suspect that it doesn't conform to its planning regulations, that it's breaching environmental regulations and it's lost all public confidence of the people who've been exposed to living next to it on a day and daily basis, and it should be closed down.

Whether they close it themselves, or it should be an enforced closure by SEPA and the planning authority.

Ross: Closing Paterson's would certainly please the community who have to live next to it in Glasgow but as we produce more and more rubbish, tighter regulations on landfill sites across the country now need to be introduced and enforced quickly.

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