UK: Monsanto helped to create one of the most contaminated sites in Britain
The old toxic waste dump at Brofiscin quarry smells of sick when it rains and the small brook that flows from it gushes a vivid orange.
Barton Williams, its owner, says he had no idea exactly what lies below his land, or how dangerous it is. "It's leaking, isn't it? It's the wrong colour. They haven't told me what's in there. The Environment Agency hasn't been open about what's in it at all and the council didn't even tell me it was toxic waste when I bought the land. They only told the public three years ago."
He remembers tankers dumping drums, slurry and sludge from the Monsanto chemical works in Newport and elsewhere in the 36-metre deep quarry on the edge of Groesfaen village near Cardiff. "They just tipped it in, anything really. They were lax in those days."
Groesfaen, now a Cardiff commuter village, is full of recently built Â£250,000 executive homes - some right on the edge of the quarry. Today, the many newcomers know little of the scale or nature of the dumping of carcinogenic and other chemical waste between 1965 and 1972. The tip, which was unlined, never had a licence for chemical dumping and water pollution was forbidden.
The first most people knew that something was wrong was in 2003 when vile smells escaped from the quarry and drifted over the village. The local Rhondda Cynon Taff council warned people to stay away but said there was no immediate health danger.
"People are worried about the value of their properties, they hope it will just go away," said one woman, who asked not to be identified, this week.
Previously unseen Environment Agency documents from 2005 show that almost 30 years after being filled, Brofiscin is one of the most contaminated places in Britain. According to engineering company WS Atkins, in a report prepared for the agency and the local authority in 2005 but never made public, the site contains at least 67 toxic chemicals. Seven PCBs have been identified, along with vinyl chlorides and naphthalene.
The unlined quarry is still leaking, the report says. "Pollution of water has been occurring since the 1970s, the waste and groundwater has been shown to contain significant quantities of poisonous, noxious and polluting material, pollution of ... waters will continue to occur ... the council is of the opinion that the metal drums will continue to deteriorate over time releasing poisonous, noxious and polluting materials," it says.
Villagers are angry that they were not told the exact condition or contents of the tip. "We do not know about this report. If there is still leakage and there is any danger, then it must be cleared up as soon as possible," said a local councillor, Jonathan Huish.
Douglas Gowan, the pollution consultant who first investigated the site between 1967 and 1973 for the National Farmers' Union, after reports of dead cattle and deformed calves in the vicinity, is one of the few people to have witnessed the landfilling of chemicals at Brofiscin. In 1967 he convened a team of toxicologists and engineers and took soil and water samples for analysis. His reports were sent to the Welsh Office but not acted upon. In a report requested by the Environment Agency of Wales last year, he states: "From 1969 to 1973 [we] actively monitored the site and witnessed not just landfill tipping in regular hours, but also dumping at night. Most of the waste came from Monsanto and I believe that almost all contained some amounts of PCBs. I saw ... vehicles dumping slurry, liquids and tars as well as ... open drums."
Even as Monsanto and other companies were sending chemicals to Brofiscin and a nearby dump, Maendy, from 1965 to 1972, in St Louis, Missouri, company executives were alarmed. From 1965 onwards evidence had been accumulating from around the world of widespread contamination from PCBs and related chemicals. PCBs were being reported in wildlife, human milk, and water, and had been found in British fish in 1967.
Internal company papers show that Monsanto knew about the PCB dangers earlier. Toxicity tests on the effects of two PCBs in 1953 showed that more than 50% of the rats subjected to them died, and all of them showed damage. With experts at the company in no doubt that Monsanto's PCBs were responsible for contamination, the company set up, in 1968, a committee to assess its options. In a paper distributed to only 12 people but which surfaced at a trial of the company in 2002, it admitted "that the evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence as residues in the environment is beyond question ... the public and legal pressures to eliminate them to prevent global contamination are inevitable".
It expected legislation, but papers seen by the Guardian reveal near panic. "The subject is snowballing. Where do we go from here? The alternatives: go out of business; sell the hell out of them as long as we can and do nothing else; try to stay in business; have alternative products", wrote the recipient of one paper.
In 1969 the company wrote a confidential Pollution Abatement Plan which admitted that "the problem involves the entire United States, Canada and sections of Europe, especially the UK and Sweden".
Monsanto's main production centre of PCBs was at Anniston in Alabama, but in 1971 it shifted production largely to Newport. According to the government, the company made 61,500 tonnes of PCBs at Newport. Internal Monsanto documents seen by the Guardian show the Newport factory was leaky and at one point was "losing" 1.7kg (3.7lb) a day of some of the most dangerous PCBs.
Herbert Vodden, a Monsanto physicist who tested how long the PCBs took to break down, told the Guardian that companies employed by Monsanto to take the waste were responsible for its disposal. "The sites were supposed to be impervious and watertight, It was the [waste] contractors' responsibility to find the sites ... usually they were reasonably cooperative. There were no regulations then. We were in their hands."
Mr Vodden said the company initially lobbied the government to carry on making PCBs in the 1960s. "They were very supportive", he said. And when it decided to pull out of PCB manufacture, "the department of industry argued against us withdrawing them. They came and told us that we should continue".
- 183 Environment