Artwork by Julia Giles

Victory for 5-year-old against environment agency in human rights landfill case

In a landmark judgment handed down today (16 September 2021), the High Court has found that the Environment Agency is not currently complying with the law which requires them to protect the life of a 5-year-old disabled child, Mathew Richards, in Silverdale, Staffordshire.

The Court accepted the evidence of Mathew’s consultant, Dr Ian Sinha that current hydrogen sulphide levels from the Walleys Quarry Landfill Site were placing Mathew on a pathway to developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adulthood, which will dramatically reduce his life expectancy.

The High Court has 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 must be brought below the level that can be smelled as soon as possible.   This must be done in a matter of weeks because the High Court also said also that, to protect Mathew’s human rights, the levels of hydrogen sulphide must be reduced to a level less than an eighth of the level that can be smelled by January 2022. 

To protect Mathew and the thousands of local residents affected by the dangerous gases produced by the landfill, the Environment Agency must take immediate action to ‘Stop the Stink’ and prevent this rogue waste disposal company from continuing to blight the lives of the people of Silverdale and the surrounding area of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The judgment is available here.

Background to the case

The judicial review was brought on behalf of Mathew Richards, whose doctors say hydrogen sulphide emissions from the landfill are likely to reduce his life-expectancy. However, a key part of the case concerned the impact of emissions on thousands of local residents, who were described in proceedings as a “community in crisis” with widespread physical and mental health problems. Mathew’s case was also supported by ‘Stop the Stink’ a group that campaigns against dangerous emissions from the landfill site.

The Environment Agency, whose role is to protect the public from pollution, was joined by Walleys Quarry Ltd, the company causing the pollution, in fighting the claim brought by Mathew, the child whose health is being harmed by the pollution. 

The Court’s judgment

In his judgment, Mr Justice Fordham said that he was “not satisfied, on the evidence, that officials within the EA have done what compliance with the applicable legal duties requires” under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court has therefore set clear targets which the Environment Agency has to work towards and a timeframe for doing so. He says this judgment will “secure practical and effective human rights safeguards. It will require pressing and ongoing action which will, in my judgment, make a very real difference so far as the air which Mathew (and his community) breathes is concerned.” And the Court stressed that “there is an obvious and pressing public interest imperative” that the Environment Agency must reduce levels “as a matter of urgency”.

In reaching these conclusions, the Court accepted the medical evidence of Dr Ian Sinha of Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, who had described the “unexpectedly excessive burden of respiratory illness and death in Silverdale” as a “public health emergency”.

Response to the judgment

Rebecca Currie, Mathew’s mother, said in response to today’s judgment,

“I am very pleased with the judgment of the High Court because it gives me hope that Mathew will be able to breathe clean air and allow his lungs to develop properly without the horrible poison from Walleys Quarry Landfill Site that he and the rest of the community have had to endure for months and months.  I am also really pleased that lots of other vulnerable people in the area including other disabled children and elderly people, will no longer have to suffer from the poison that Walleys Quarry is pumping out.  What’s needed now is for the Environment Agency to step up and use the powers that it has to stop any more waste being brought into the site and take action to prevent the dangerous gases ruining our health and quality of life.”

It is however disappointing that despite the clear judgment of the High Court the Environment Agency has refused to provide a date by which it will comply with its legal duties.  Rebekah Carrier, solicitor for Mathew says,

“While we are delighted with today’s judgment we are very concerned that the Environment Agency do not appear to be taking their duties as seriously as they must.  We will be keeping a very close eye on the situation to make sure that they do take the urgent action the High Court has said is needed. If they do not take the action necessary to protect the human rights of Mathew and others in the community we will have no hesitation in bringing the matter back to court.  I would also like to pay tribute to Rebecca Currie who has bravely stood up to the Environment Agency to protect the life of her child.  This is truly a ‘David and Goliath’ case where a mother has faced up to the government agency which is supposed to protect public health and yet has failed so badly to do so.”

Press coverage of the case can be found here and here.

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