Could Corby happen again?

The remediation of the former Corby steelworks between 1983 and 1997 exposed local families to contaminants. Dr Jon Burton looks at the legislation that has been put in place since then to see if it could ever happen again.

As previously reported, 16 families won a court case in the Technology and Construction Court of England and Wales on 29 July 2009, which confirmed the potential for a link between birth defects and exposure to contaminants that originated from the remediation of the Corby steelworks in Northamptonshire between 1983 and 1997 (Post, 6 August 2009, p8).

The birth defects were indicated to have been a result of ingestion or inhalation of harmful substances" reportedly cadmium, chromium, nickel, dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons" generated by the remediation works.

The question is, could Corby happen again today? To answer that, it is necessary to review what changes there have been to legislation, guidance and remediation practice since the time those works were carried out.

Corby Borough Council purchased around 680 acres of the British Steel sites to the north-east of Corby in the early 1980s and undertook remediation works of this land by 'muck shifting' large quantities of contaminated materials, in part via public roads to a nearby landfill in a quarry.

The judge Mr Justice Akenhead ruled that there was 'negligence, breach of statutory duty and public nuisance' on the part of CBC with respect to this remediation. It was suggested that there could be upper and/or lower limb defects to the claimants and that the alleged loss arising out of such a breach was foreseeable. The judge added that this was subject to it being established in later proceedings by individual claimants that their particular conditions were caused by the defaults identified in the judgement.

According to the judge's decision, CBC and its contractors generated virtually constant contaminated mud and dust from transport of substantial quantities of the material on public roads between 1985 and 1997. In addition, the demolition, excavation, transporting, depositing, grading and levelling operations generated more contaminated dust, while sweeping of the roads was inadequate and often not done at all. The mud and dust would inevitably be spread further around the town by general traffic.

The judge considered that CBC had a duty of care to prevent the dispersion of contaminated mud and dust from the sites they were remediating, as this could lead to the exposure of the claimants' mothers to teratogens" substances that can cause birth defects.

Last week, CBC announced its decision to appeal the decision; it has denied negligence and that there was a link between the remediation activities and the reported deformities.

Remediation repercussions

Some commentators have already suggested the judgment is a significant concern for other local authorities and developers of brownfield land as it may raise the standard required for contaminated land remediation. It may necessitate a rethink of the way that remediation is carried out in the UK, despite the fact the case deals with an historic approach to the remediation of contaminated land.

Legislation and guidance relating to the investigation and remediation of contaminated land sites was in place and available in the 1980s, but a great deal has changed since the Corby remediation works started" although arguably poor practice in some parts of the industry has continued.

Legislative changes

Two key documents, in terms of their relevance, are the 1983 Inter-Departmental Committee on the Remediation of Contaminated Land guidance note on the assessment and redevelopment of contaminated land (ICRCL59/83) and the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Since 1990, further changes have had a far-reaching effect on the way in which contaminated sites are assessed and remediated. Three stand out for their importance. First, legislation" in addition to the 1990 Act, we have seen the formation of the Environment Agency in 1995 and, 10 years later, the requirement to identify and dispose of hazardous waste only at suitable commercial landfill sites in 2005.

Second on the list are commercial factors. The end of landfill tax exemptions in 2008 and escalating landfill tax rates have altered the economics of the choice between 'dig-and-dump' or treatment on site.

The third change to consider is the introduction of remediation licensing, which requires detailed assessment of the techniques undertaken including risks to human health and the environment. Site waste management plans are also now required on projects with a value exceeding £300 000 so that contractors are required to track waste movements and minimise waste production where possible.

Consequently, it is quite likely that a remediation strategy developed today for the steel works at Corby would account for the changed commercial and legislative landscape, and may well incorporate on-site treatment" such as stabilisation, permeable reactive barriers and cover systems" to manage the inherent risks rather than wholesale excavation and removal of contaminated materials.

Simple actions could have been taken at Corby that would have prevented the spread of dust during its remediation and it does appear that best practice outlined in the legislation and guidance available at the time was not adopted. But, since the 1980s, new legislation relating to the remediation of contaminated land has been implemented in England and Wales that increase emphasis on the assessment of risk to human health and the environment for all parts of the remediation process.

Options available

Not only has this legislation resulted in an improvement in the way contaminated land is remediated, options other than dig-and-dump are now established and cost-effective. This, coupled with a drive to more sustainable forms of remediation, ensures that social, economic and environmental factors are all taken into account in the assessment of remedial options.

At a time of increasing competition and financial strain, perhaps this case is a salutary reminder of the possible consequences of taking shortcuts when addressing the risks to human health and environment from land contamination and the benefits of quality professional advice.


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