Shafted?

I notice that there’s some commotion on the Brownhills/Walsall Wood border at the moment. Local councillor Mike ‘Burger Boy’ Flower has rightly flagged up in his thankfully rejuvenated blog that a plan to demolish Brownhills Business Park (the former surface buildings of Walsall Wood Colliery) and build housing in it’s place has been granted outline permission by an appeal to the Planning Authority.

The planning saga – ongoing since 2008 – has been protracted. The industrial estate recently came under the ownership of The Ashtenne Industrial Fund Unit Trust, who have expressed a desire to redevelop the site as housing. Initially, outline application no. 08/0726/OL for 90 ‘residential units’ was submitted in April 2008 and refused in the following June. This was modified slightly and resubmitted as 08/1725/OL in October 2008, with the developer’s grounds for appeal listed in an accompanying document. This application was also thrown out in January 2009. A timespan of applications can be viewed on Walsall Council’s planning interactive site. Since then, the developers have taken the case to the Planning Inspectorate – the overseers of the English planning process – who have considered the application appeal and granted it, in direct conflict to the decision of Walsall’s planning committee.

1948 two-and-a-half inch map overlaid on Google Earth imagery of the site. Note that some buildings are still extant, and that the colliery was almost wholly contained with the proposed housing development.

The contention of the council – outlined in Mike Flower’s blog post – is that the development would cause the loss of jobs and industrial capacity on the site, and exacerbate traffic and school capacity issues. I can certainly understand the protests of current tenants on the site – but should the developers pay relocation costs I wouldn’t really object. The infrastructure issues to me at least, don’t stack up; we’ve had a net loss in housing capacity in Brownhills in the last ten years with the wholesale demolition of social housing, and should the developers get permission, I’m sure they could be coerced into contributing to junction improvements, as Morris Homes seem to be doing at Shire Oak. Further, Walsall Council don’t seem to be concerned about industrial land conflicts at other sites – notably Norfolk Place in Leamore, where the authority is swapping it’s existing depot for a housing development on the nod, in exchange for a bizarre new depot on the former Wagon site in Brownhills.

In principle, I wouldn’t oppose the development at all, the site is indeed run down, and there is plenty of vacant industrial capacity locally. Subject to compensation of the current occupants, there shouldn’t be a problem. There’s just one thing that’s troubling me. The site is a former pithead. A pithead with a rather unpleasant recent history.

Is someone concealing toxic assets?

On the site, Walsall Wood Colliery operated until 1964 – indeed, many of the buildings forming the ‘business park’ are former pithead buildings. Somewhere on site there is a capped mineshaft. That in itself is a serious issue – however, for the following two decades, a huge quantity of industrial effluent and toxic waste was disposed of by discharge into the former mine. The geology of the coal seam, theoretically encased in marl, meant that the operators of the disposal operation – initially Effluent Disposal – could treat the former mineshafts as a large sealed container, with the blessing of the authorities and local government. This they did, and huge quantities of toxic waste were emptied into the void beneath Walsall Wood. During this period, controls were far more relaxed than those of current times, so scant records were kept. Effluent Disposal suffered bad press during 70’s and early 80’s, with an accident at the facility not helping their image. After a succession of name changes, disposal at the site ceased, to continue at sites in Stubbers Green, near Aldridge. Veolia, the current company in the convoluted effluent lineage, still have offices next door to the industrial park.

The site had a controversial history, with questions asked in parliament in August, 1976 by local MP Geoff Edge and soon after, by MP Jeff Rooker, who made a fascinating statement a day later. An extract from that statement is very illuminating:

‘There is near Walsall the shaft of a former coal mine—Walsall Wood Colliery—which for some years has been used for the dumping of toxic waste. In a recent 12-month period 10 million gallons of waste was poured down the mine shaft. It is a warren of toxic waste, because the shaft goes 500 feet underground and then 3,000 feet along the old mine workings.

The action of dumping waste has been defended by the company disposing of the waste—Effluent Disposal Limited. It intends to continue dumping millions of gallons of waste down the mine shaft for the next 20 years—in fact, till the end of the century. It claims that the mine shaft is a safe geological bottle, because the toxic poisonous waste cannot escape.

In fact, this is a geological time bomb which will probably affect our children and future generations. No one really knows what is happening down there. It is not possible to inspect the underground area. Even worse, six weeks ago a blockage occurred. The shaft and the workings can supposedly be used for 20 years. Because of the blockage, nothing is being dumped down there. The company is attempting to get planning permission to bore a hole to release the blockage by means of air pressure. The local residents are very opposed to this. Most of them did not appreciate what was happening. It was only the blockage that brought the operations at the mine shaft to the attention of the public.’

What is concerning me is that neither Walsall Council, nor the developers seem to have noted this history. A cursory look through the planning documents reveals nothing of note relating to the history of the industrial park. Who would knowingly buy a house built on such a site? Has the cost of cleaning the contaminated land been thought through? Would any lender grant a mortgage following a mining search? Is this proposal even legal? I’d be interested in readers views and opinion. The thought of that particular portal being opened, either deliberately or accidentally, fills me with dread.

One can only wonder why this hasn’t been mentioned before.

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11 Comments

  • I clearly remember the Effluent Disposal trucks- lots of them- heading to dump stuff there. At the time I didn’t live in the immediate area, but a member of the family did, and youd see a truck or two pretty much any time you visited.

    I suspect the mineshaft issue could well cause problems with a mortgage (from personal experience of a house in Willenhall). I know capping techniques are proably improved and that building regs in the area usually insist on concrete rafts etc, but that’s right on top of it. Yes, it’s pretty hard to avoid mineworkings near here, but even so…

     
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  • Cllr Mike Flower

    It was mentioned at the planning meeting by Cllr Sears who’s father worked down the pit – but it appears to have been ignored by the planning inspectorate…

     
    Reply
    • Quite, but it also seems to have been ignored by the council.

      I think there may be a legal issue here. Are there not laws about building on waste sites? Do Ashtenne know what they have bought?

      Should not the planning process throw up information like this as a matter of process? Do the guys in the planning office not use Promap, Planes or similar?

      Thanks for your contribution

      Bob

       
      Reply
  • There’s laws about building on brownfield sites and an environmental asessment has to be carried out. I’m not sure how vigorous a survey that has to be. I suspect the amount of local pressure may have an effect on that 😉

    There’s been a case trundling on for some time regarding brownfield development in Corby.

    http://www.brownfieldbriefing.com/news/corby-case-could-hamper-brownfield-land-development

    It’d be interesting to know what kind of ongoing testing there has been of groundwater in the area regardless of this proposed development

     
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  • Facade66

    As I recall, (likely erroneously), some years ago there was an application to close the Pit Head site from the then owners, Onyx, Sarp or somesuch, (the name changes everytime there is bad press), but Walsall Council refused, as closure meant patting some dirt on top and expunging it from maps, but keeping it open meant periodic monitoring.

    Remember the flock of drilling rigs trying to establish how far it had leaked?
    It has exploded twice whilst I’ve been living here.

    I think you are wrong about people buying the houses though, just look at the development in Shelfield. The only access is opposite the gates of the Largest Toxic Chemical Disposal Plant in Western Europe, yet the houses sold, and you still see the residents moaning on Central News that their children have two heads, or respiratory complaints. Sheer Co-incidence apparently….

     
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  • George Blanchard

    My grandfather, W. E. Share, had an original handwritten copy of the first core for the Walsall Wood Colliery. I belive that a copy was sent to the geology departmen at Aston University, and that the original was sent to the Cannock Chase Mining College archives. As I recall, (it was a long time ago) there was a reaction from the gelogists which went something like: we thought it {disposal of waste in the mine} was dangerous, now we know it is.”

     
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