The Effluent society

Further to my post last week, regarding the plans by The Ashtenne Industrial Fund Unit Trust to demolish Brownhills Business Park and construct housing, granted on appeal by the Planning Inspectorate, I’ve been looking into the history of the site in question. Initially, the land was the site of Walsall Wood Colliery, which ceased production in 1964. From then until the mid-1970’s, the former workings were used as a disposal receptacle for toxic waste by a company called Effluent Disposal Limited. A descendant company from the original operators, Veolia, still occupy the premises next door to the industrial estate in question.

In my searches, I found the following map and description of how waste disposal commenced and ended at the former mine. It comes from the excellent book ‘Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge’ by Brian Rollins, published by Walsall Local History Centre (ISBN 0 946652 34 1). I obtained my copy on eBay.

If Brian Rollins is reading this, I’d be interested to hear his views on the matter.

Ordnance Survey 1921 geological map showing Walsall Wood Colliery and Shire Oak, from Brian Rollins' book. Note the location of shafts is marked clearly.

Closure of Walsall Wood

Coal mining ceased on 30th October 1964 but the colliery remained open with a small team of men to salvage underground materials. No.2 Shaft was filled with mine waste from the mound which ran along side Coppice Road while No.1 Shaft was filled from the bottom of the pit at 1,635 feet below ground to a point just below the Top Robins Inset at approximately 1,144 feet down. The purpose of this was to prepare the shaft for the disposal of liquid trade effluent.

After the closure of Walsall Wood Colliery

Once the shaft was prepared for the disposal of liquid trade effluent, any effluent deposited down the shaft would enter the Top Robins inset and then access voids in the workings by migrating down from seam to seam via cross measure drifts. This process started in 1966 and the formal lease was granted by the National Coal Board to Effluent Disposal Ltd. on 19th July 1967. Use of No. 1 shaft was granted for 21 years. A second lease was granted to the same Company on 12th February 1968 for a term of 99 years from 1st January 1969 for the same purposes. However, some little time after the disposal started an implosion occurred which damaged the small cover erected over the shaft. This was caused by the 490 feet of fill above the pit bottom disappearing into the workings. It had become so heavy with liquid discharge that it lost adhesion to the shaft wall and breached pit bottom stoppings.

Sometime later when damage had occurred to the shaft lining which required repair, an explosion occurred in the shaft which badly damaged the pit top cover. The explosion was apparently caused when contractors lowered a light to inspect damage to the shaft wall.

Discharge of effluent finally ceased in the shaft on 28th March 1976 when the level of liquid rose to 991 feet below the shaft top. This was the level that had been set in the grant of planning permission and the permission from the River Authority. The brick shaft wall had become so affected by the liquid effluent being discharged that it collapsed. This collapse occurred in the Etruria Marls which then ‘spalled off from behind the brickwork and the whole fell down the shaft and created a plug, as no more effluent was able to pass into the workings.

The trade effluent was then put into old open brick quarries next to Aldridge No.1 and 2 shafts and was called the Mitco Lagoon. To remove this nuisance permission was granted to the Company to drill a borehole from the surface so that a way in to the various underground roadways in the shaft pillar and down to the Deep Seam horizon could be created. This proved successful and, some 33 million gallons were decanted from the . lagoon down the borehole in approximately 12 months.

In 1976 Effluent Disposal Ltd. lodged a planning application to sink a borehole on the Empire Site off Stubbers Green Road, Aldridge to gain access to voids in underground workings, and then to discharge liquid trade effluent down the hole. The application was refused but granted on appeal after a public inquiry. The hole together with 3 monitoring boreholes was drilled and the facility was used to discharge treated liquid trade effluent into the reservoir of old workings until 1990.

I also found the following description (scroll down to ‘Second Quarterly Meeting of 2004’) of a talk, also by Brian Rollins, given on June 21st 2004 to Cannock Chase Minig Historical Society. This gives more detail of the accidents that occurred on on the site while it was used as a disposal facility:

The guest speaker on this occasion was the CCMHS Chairman MR BRIAN ROLLINS, his talk entitled The Effluent Disposal Scheme at Walsall Wood Colliery after it’s closure or as Brian puts it “Coal to Crap” was a very interesting and informative talk. It was also a bit of an eye opener with quite a few facts being revealed about the lack of real control that was exerted by the local authorities on the actual type of  effluent being deposited down the Walsall Wood shaft. Brian was at that period of his career Chief Area Surveyor for the NCB Western Area based at Staffordshire House Stoke on Trent and this dropped him right in the deep end, he knew the underground workings of Walsall Wood Colliery well as he had been head surveyor there before his move to Headquarters.  He was made representative for British Coal who although they had shut and disposed of the Colliery many years earlier were still responsible for it. This meant that Brian was first in line for the Crap in the title. He dispelled the myth about the first explosion after the dumping of the effluent began, it was in fact an implosion down into the mine which took the conservatory type bubble building (constructed at the shaft top to stop the awful stench that was emerging out of the workings) down the mine. He also related how the only  explosion in the shaft was caused by two workmen on duty at the shaft top lowering an extension light down the shaft to see if they could found out why the effluent was not seeping away into the workings. The extension lamp of at least 100 yards long was lowered down the shaft with the light switched off when the men though they were far enough down the shaft the lamp was switched on, it was concluded the bulb smashed and the resulting shorting, caused gasses in the shaft to explode blowing the pit top cover of tin and asbestos sheet over most of Brownhills and Clayhanger. It was good to be told that no heavy materials were ever dumped at Walsall Wood but it is also quite disconcerting to also be told that nobody really knows what actually was dumped.

What I find most alarming about this whole situation is that the Walsall Council Planning Committee considering the application for housing seemed unaware of the former usage of the site. Councillor Mike Flower commented to this effect on my initial post – which makes me wonder just what kind of records are held for the site, and just how the planning process works in relation to possibly contaminated land. Certainly, the Planning Inspectorate seem unaware of the history involved.

I’m concerned about not just the legality of developing housing on the former colliery, but the moral position of locating housing so near to such an objectionable, poisonous remnant. I find it rather disturbing that nobody involved – not Walsall Council, nor the developers Ashtenne, or even the Planning Inspectorate seem to have any knowledge of what exactly lies beneath this seemingly innocuous industrial yard. The council, who have always opposed this development, really should move to investigate before it’s too late.

Walsall Wood Colliery, from Walsall Council's website.

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26 Responses to The Effluent society

  1. Pedro says:

    Hi Bob,

    Great article and it will be interesting to see how it develops.

    I notice the mention of the collapse of the wall into the Etruria Marls and reminded me that the other day I had passed the Oak Farm Quarry, near Lower Gornal, that extracts the Marl for the Staffordshire Blue Brick.

    See here with note below…

    On a lighter note see the Last Effluent Sampling Point at Biggin Dale in the Peak District here…

    Regards Pedro

  2. Mick_P says:

    I shudder to think what went down that hole. The Effluent Disposal tankers were a common sight when I was a pupil at Shire Oak school (1976-’82), but I didn’t realise then what was their business in the area. I seem to recall that there’s an inspection head just before you reach Coppice Woods on Green lane, Walsall Wood, if coming from the Black Cock Bridge.

    • Mick_P says:

      I’ve just checked in Streetview and the sign at that site actually says that it’s a pumping station for Severn Trent Water, so my post above might well be completely misleading. How useful.

  3. jim says:

    I got stories about this place in the early 90s from someone technically involved. They used a process where the waste was mixed with a polymer that made it solidify at the bottom. That was presumably just the worst kind of waste, not all of the millions of gallons. The snag was if they used the right amount of polymer it tended to set in the pipe, so they used less…

    • stymaster says:

      Jim: I’m not certain, but you may be thinking of the process used just up the road by Effluent Disposal/Polymeric/Leigh Envrironmental/Veolia in the old brickworks quarry off Stubbers Green Road. The process is, i believe, called Sealosafe, and I’ve heard the stories that sound very similar to what you say.

  4. Paul says:

    Hi Bob,Jim

    I remember in the 80’s and early 90’s that there was a big problem with what ever was dumped down the shafts at the Stubbers Green site. For years there was a really terrible smell and it gave you a head ache. There were demonstrations outside the entrance and they errected big air freshener machines around the bore holes to try and mask the smell. I believe the problem was with the sealosafe process not always working/mixing correctly as well.

    What is more worrying is the smell has returned recently, I wonder if the quarry next to the site has caused a leak? or they have started to pore more into the bore holes.

    The problem is you don’t really know what they have poured down over the years and what would happen if it ever found its way into the water table.

    Has anybody else noticed the return of the smell?

    • stymaster says:

      Yes, I’ve noticed the smell returning. I grew up just accross a field or two from the site in the days when you could smell it for a good couple of miles. There’s a public footpath through the site (which I daresay they hate) and from there you can see the scale of the operation.

      Rumour (but only rumour) had it that they were skimping on the cement used in the sealosafe process.

  5. CAZ says:

    l remember as a child the uproar when effluent disposal started dumping waste down the old mine shafts.l lived near by and my dad had to block the air vents in our house because of the may be totally unrelated, but…. over the years many of the houses in our street went on to have family members die from cancer and l’ve often wondered if there was a connection.My mother died from bowel cancer and my father had cancerous cells in his prostate, although he died shortly after from a heart attack. who knows, he may have gone on to develop prostrate cancer? To the left of us, the mother had breast cancer, was cured but later developed bowel cancer and died, her daughter died young from a brain tumour.Next to them the man died from lung cancer and his wife had bladder cancer.The family next to them moved out when l was a tenager but l heard the mother and son died from cancer? In the next house the man died from lung cancer and their daughter also died from cancer {bone?]To our right the man died of leukemia[although he didn’t move in till l was a teen] and next door to that the son died from stomache cancer.2 doors from them the mother [and father l think] died from cancer.That’s an awful lot of cancer deaths in just the 10 homes l’ve listed and there were others.Some families moved away who l know later died from cancer.All these deaths occurred many years later but who knows if there was a connection to the fumes we all breathed in back then.Deaths from cancer have increased greatly over the years and some of the people listed here were in their 70’s so who’s to say they wouldn’t have died from cancer anyway, but one was 39,one died within days of her 50th birthday, one mid 50’s and another developed the cancer in her 50’s and died aged 61.l think there should be a thorough search before building on the site to be on the safe side.Having said all that…the mine shafts full of the waste, run under my home……….ooh dear… lol

  6. r selvey says:

    how can I get a picture to you? I have a shot of the railway embankment taken from stubbers green road on 2nd april 1979. Clearly shows the line of track and in the background the path going up to the canal and the overbridge. I seem to recall in a recent post you mentioning this area.

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  12. William Sullivan says:

    I worked for Effluent Disposal from 1971 to 1977 at Brownhills and do not remember any smell being emitted from the mine shaft or whilst vehicled were discharging. There had been complaints about smell and inspections were made by local councillors, the comments being “the only smell that could be detected were the wall flowers in the garden which were kept in beautiful condition by one Ted Davis who had worked down the mine when it was in operation.

    • Hello William.

      I’m genuinely stunned. This was when I was a kid – the smells were beyond belief. We knew where they were from as they correlated with wind direction.

      As for discharging, I can remember many a dripping wagon going in there. You may have been the sole of care and conscientiousness, but many were not.

      As Linda says, the company back then were openly hostile to locals, and many of us ended up blacklisted by the Economic League who recorded and photographed demos in the 80s and 90s.

      I can only wonder at your sense of smell. The experience locally was so far removed from what you describe, I’m actually wondering if there’s a parallel Walsall Wood somewhere, and we’re at crossed purposes.



    • stymaster says:

      Bullshit, frankly, and that’s not the only smell. I can vividly remember the smell from the late 70s and early 80s, and the demonstrations. The place stunk, worst on a dmap, foggy, still day, and cover parts of the whole Brownhills/Walsall Wood/Shelfield/Rushall/Aldridge area.

      • Rob Milne says:

        During the summers of 1969, 70 and 71, when I was a student, I worked for ED, a subsidiary of John Hudson’s of Birmingham, and well remember some of my then colleagues. During those years the company carried out industrial, cleaning, especially of boilers, as well as the disposal of toxic and/or corrosive liquid waste from many factories and foundries all over the Black Country. I remember too we used occasionally to pour unsold milk from the then Milk Marketing Board down the hole, 3000 gallons or so at a time. (I often wondered what strange new life-forms might have been evolving down there). My duties also included steam-cleaning the tankers, an extremely dirty, hot and (above all) noisy job. However I do NOT remember it being especially smelly. Bear in mind, though, that nearly fifty years have passed and my memory is perhaps unreliable.

  13. kate Goodall says:

    Were clothes pegs part of the PPE provision for employees back then William?

  14. Several things spring to mind about William’s comment. The smell couldn’t be avoided, it lingered and a spell away from around here certainly made the senses alert to its true awfulness on return. The problem at the time and as highlighted in Bob’s excellent blog and the comments is that facts about what was being dumped were pretty hard to come by at the time; the only way to gain any information was to buy ( a lot of ) shares in Effluent Disposal. Even then the company kept its secrets close to the board. Woe betide you if you did ask awkward questions….the papers were full of nasty headlines about reds under beds and other such rubbish with regard to local politicians who did put their necks out.

  15. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob

    Effluent Disposal.. ah yes, a perfectly safe company, run by..erm……..wonderful , honest, upright guys who … all lived a long way from here, of course – Cayman Islands, was it- where the air is clean, the skies are clear,and the water is pure.

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