Defra must strongly consider if WHO guidelines are right to measure odour from landfill sites
Landfill sites are an important part of our waste management process, but smells from landfill waste are having a significant impact on the quality of life of local residents, writes Aaron Bell MP.
The Westminster Hall debate today – “That this House has considered odour emanating from landfill sites” – will highlight to Defra the concern that many communities feel about a system that does not treat unpleasant odour – and the serious effect it can have on people’s quality of life – with the seriousness it deserves.
The waste industry is one most people would rather not think about. The Government – and the population at large – are already doing a huge amount to reduce waste going to landfill and promoting recycling and resource efficiency. However, in the meantime landfill sites remain an important part of our waste management process in this country.
The specific landfill site in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme is at Walley’s Quarry. As the name suggests, this was a former clay extraction quarry which was then converted to landfill use. The local councils objected to the original application, but were overruled by the then Secretary of State, John Prescott. It has been in operation since 2007 and will continue to accept landfill waste until 2026.
The quarry site is within 100 metres of residential properties in multiple directions, and so the current landfilling operations have caused the local community significant concern, primarily about odour but also gull activity and highway safety concerns relating to the number of vehicles accessing the site. Sensitivity to smell can be very subjective but I clearly smelt the odour myself when canvassing the neighbouring communities during the General Election. Depending on weather conditions, it can on occasion be detected in town centre.
This odour is intermittent but often strong when it is present. Residents complain about being unable to open their windows or dry their washing on the line. A local group called “Stop The Stink” claim 2,400 signatures on a petition seeking to get the landfill closed down altogether.
Understandably this has also given rise to formal complaints: to the operator, to the local council and to the Environment Agency. In response, the local council are convening a scrutiny review to examine all the issues surrounding the landfill, and inviting the owners and other stakeholders to make representations. The operator has repeatedly stressed that they run a compliant site, but will not concede that the site smells.
The Environment Agency, who have the statutory responsibility to regulate the site, have conducted two air quality monitoring exercises in the neighbouring village of Silverdale, the most recent being between February and June last year, which regrettably did not report until December having originally been scheduled for release in September.
The most recent survey demonstrated that there was a continuous source of methane and hydrogen sulphide (the latter being the “rotten egg” smell that people find so distasteful) coming from the direction of the landfill, and also found that hydrogen sulphide concentrations did occasionally exceed odour limits, though not health limits, which are measured against WHO guidelines.
There are two immediate things I would like Defra to consider from this debate. Firstly, whether WHO health guidelines are the right measure for the Government to use in considering what is permissible in built-up areas: should odour – which can be damaging to mental health – not be strongly considered when assessing the impact of a landfill?
Secondly, there is a great deal of mistrust between members of the local community and both the operators of the landfill and the Environment Agency. Surely monitoring data should be made available live via a website, which would reassure people that the evidence of their own noses was being matched by a scientific process?
I have been struck by the number of MPs from across the House who have contacted me to let me know that they have similar issues in their constituencies, and therefore it is a pity that today’s debate is limited to 30 minutes. I hope to pursue the matter further with both the Department and within Parliament.
Aaron Bell is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme.