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Watchdog must do more to protect boy, 5, from landfill fumes, court rules

·4-min read

The high court has ruled the Environment Agency must do more to protect a five-year-old boy from landfill fumes that doctors say are shortening his life expectancy.

In a landmark judgment on Thursday, a high court judge said he was not satisfied that the EA was complying with its legal duty to protect the life of Mathew Richards, whose respiratory health problems are being worsened by fumes from a landfill site near his home in Silverdale, near Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The court accepted evidence from Dr Ian Sinha, a paediatric respiratory consultant at Alder Hey children’s hospital, who said exposure to hydrogen sulphide fumes from the site “will have a lifelong detrimental effect on Mathew’s future respiratory health” and would reduce his life expectancy.

Mathew’s mother, Rebecca Currie, said she was overwhelmed when she read the ruling: “Mathew’s done this and we’ve not only done it for us, we’ve done it for everyone back home. Because Mathew’s won today, we’re all going to be able to breathe fresh air, and a lot of people have been suffering.

“But I’m still angry that it’s been allowed to happen. It’s been horrific. Mathew came running in the other day saying his nose was burning.”

Rebekah Carrier, the solicitor representing Mathew, said: “What has happened in Silverdale was really shocking to me. I’m so delighted for them that they’ve had this outcome, but I do feel a bit of trepidation about whether the EA will step up now, and what we’ll do if they don’t.”

She added: “I think this judgment will be really important as we’re getting to understand more about the impacts of pollution.

The ruling said the EA had not yet “addressed its legal duties in the way that it must” and that “there is an obvious and pressing public interest imperative that it must do so, as a matter of urgency”.

The high court found that in order to protect Mathew’s human rights there must be “real and significant change, as a matter of urgency” and that levels of dangerous emissions from Walleys Quarry landfill must be reduced in a matter of weeks.

The judgment ordered hydrogen sulphide to be reduced to less than an eighth of current levels by January 2022.

Eloise Scotford, a professor of environmental law at University College London, said the judgment was groundbreaking in many ways and could open the door to further legal action around air pollution.

“There’s always been a conceptual challenge for law around the rights of individuals in relation to a collective problem like air pollution, which the state controls through regulation, but this is a judgment that finds a way to cut through that,” she said.

She said the decision to force the EA to take action was also unique. “Normally courts would trust a regulator to do their job but here they’re stepping in and saying the stakes are too high. Courts don’t tend to try and second guess the experts on judicial review, but this judgment is doing that, which is quite unusual.”

Prof Robert Lee, from Birmingham Law School, said the use of human rights legislation made the case particularly interesting. “We all live in situations in which we’re exposed to noise or odours or air pollution, and there’s an acceptance that some of that is economically necessary,” he said.

“But when we get to article 2 [of the Human Rights Act] and the right to life, they’re much less contingent, and clearly if there’s a threat to life … the state must act.”

Campaigners welcomed the judgment as a huge victory for those affected by the fumes. Residents in the towns and villages surrounding the Staffordshire landfill say they have been plagued for months by a bad smell and fumes, which have caused headaches, itchy eyes, nosebleeds and worsened respiratory conditions such as asthma.

An EA spokesperson said: “We have every sympathy with the local community, who should not have to live with the distress caused by landfill gas being released from Walleys Quarry. That’s why we are requiring the operator, Walleys Quarry Ltd, to take action.

“The court agreed that we are right to rely on assessments and advice from Public Health England and did not find a present breach by the Environment Agency of its legal obligations.

“We will seek to appeal some aspects of the judgment relating to the role of the court. This in no way affects or changes our determination to tackle the problems at this site in the interests of the claimant, the community and the environment.”

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