October 16th, 2010 by admin
2012 Olympics preparations exposed users of Manor Garden Allotments to radioactive waste hazard, documentation from the period reveals. Failure to adequately investigate contamination in the former West Ham Tip landfill prior to extensive excavations also gambled with the health of local residents, construction workers and archaeologists. The Olympic Delivery Authority’s misleading media communications then actively sought to conceal the seriousness of the risks taken.
Documentation obtained through the Environmental Information Regulations show spoil was being excavated and stockpiled without safety precautions yards from the allotments while food crops were still being grown, and exposed areas containing unidentified radioactive material were left unmarked and unprotected.
The works took place during 2007, during the five months prior to the final removal of the plotholders and demolition of their gardens. The affected area was immediately to the east of the allotments – the site of the Olympic Velodrome and Basketball Arena and next to the Athletes Village. Like much of the Olympic park it had once been a waste tip active prior to the introduction of controls on disposal of hazardous and radioactive waste.
In the 1970s the tip area was remediated by capping and covering with 2 to 3 meters of clean topsoil and then landscaped to create the Eastway cycle circuit and parklands. But the original waste remained in place, extending in some areas to a depth of 20m. The waste with remaining contamination is still there beneath the Velodrome and surroundings, though the protective cover is now as little as 60cm.
The Olympic construction project required the whole area to be levelled and the Hennicker’s Ditch watercourse, which ran close to the allotments, excavated and culverted. The works were carried out by Galliford Try Infrastructure (Morrisons) beginning in April 2007. This involved the disturbance of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of spoil and deep digging into the landfill refuse, which had a significant risk of radioactive contamination – a hazard of all landfill sites of its period.
It is made clear in government guidance from DEFRA on potential sources of radioactive contamination that "It is likely that radioactive materials of unknown nature were deposited in landfills prior to the implementation of regulatory controls.". This advice was ignored, with no comprehensive prior surveying or monitoring of excavations when they commenced – despite the proximity of the allotment gardens and the still-inhabited Clays Lane Estate.
Radiological surveying of excavations was delayed until the plotholders had left – 5 months after excavations began. A single Radiation Advisor from Nukem (now known as Nuvia), brought in by the ODA’s contractors Morrisons, only arrived on site and began surveying on the 17th September . Immediately, elevated levels of radioactivity were detected across the area.
The danger had been further compounded by the reuse, prior to being aware of its properties, of radioactive material to backfill areas previously excavated to remove Japanese Knotweed – spreading contamination onto the surface. Two such areas lay within metres of the allotments.
By the 26th September – only 3 days after the final closure of the allotments – an internal report was produced indicating elevated radioactivity levels had now been discovered in 10 locations in the vicinity of the allotments  – in stockpiles, exposed surfaces and backfilled areas. These may have been generating harmful dust for months , and no suppression measures were in use.
Dust blowing off the site had been an issue since works began, and had been the subject of numerous complaints from Clays Lane residents.
On 18th October the ODA issued a press release claiming that a radioactive dial had been found together with ‘very low-level readings in small isolated areas’. It contained the assertion "Monitoring has been carried out since earthworks started in the area as a result of research into possible contamination." – this was untrue. No radiological monitoring took place for the first 5 months of earthworks. It also wrongly claimed "The radiation readings are in a small, isolated area of the site which is well away from the public".
In an attempt to add technical credibility to their claims, a report by the ODA’s project designers Atkins was released at the same time – the ‘Review of procedures relating to the discovery of radioactive substances’. This contains little of substance and looks like PR reassurance exercise rather than a genuine investigation. While confirming that "Low level radioactive contamination was discovered on site during excavation and waste sorting from 17 September 2007", it failed to note that this was only because that was the first date that anyone had checked for it – and that people could have been unknowingly exposed for months previously.
The Atkins report concludes "Procedures are robust and properly implemented" - but lacks any examination of their details, when they were introduced, or how they were implemented. While claiming "Based on the information available to date… it is highly unlikely that any member of the public has been unnecessarily exposed to ionising radiation", it is clear this was a matter of luck. After 6 months of construction activity there was minimal and sketchy radiological information. The report contains no references to specific documents in which the procedures are said to have been defined, and there is no evidence of scrutiny or approval by the local planning authority – the ODA’s Planning Decision Team.
The delay in starting any form of radiological surveying and its limited scope may have been intended to avoid drawing public attention to the radiation hazard or risking the construction schedule. If radiation associated with the works had been identified at an earlier stage, it might have caused complication and delay as well as a PR problem – and alarmed construction workers.
Lord James of Blackheath revealed in a House of Lords debate on the Olympics on 12 January 2010 that the construction site padre "heard great disquiet expressed by the workforce undertaking the excavations on the village site due to the large deposits of radioactive material that were lodged there" and asked "How successful was the removal of this material before the workforce had to engage directly with it, and what steps were taken to protect them?".
There was no removal, and protective measures were minimal and introduced too late to be effective.
Example of a detailed survey of a radioactive tip. No such survey was undertaken on the Olympic rubbish tips before excavation. A case of dig first, spin later?
The authorities may also have been concerned about the possibility of legal action if it became known that radioactive contamination was being uncovered while members of the public occupied land in the immediate vicinity – particularly if spending long periods outdoors and growing food. Earlier in 2007, the residents of Clays Lane had commenced application for an injunction to stop the dust-creating works near them, but this was refused on the grounds that it ‘risked stopping a project of major national importance in its tracks’.
Julian Cheyne, who lived on the Clays Lane Estate until July 2007, comments:
“Residents not only lost their homes and community but were also afflicted by the dust created during the first seven months of the ‘clean-up’. As time has gone on we have heard more about the dangers this clean-up created in disturbing industrial and radioactive contaminants which were buried on the tip and which were being dug up while we were still living on the estate. The ODA and other agencies monitoring the ‘clean-up’ seem to have shown scant regard for correct procedures in dealing with these hazardous materials and have created a legacy of waste and destruction which will haunt past, present and future residents and users.”
The Remediation Strategy for the area, approved by the ODA on 25 January 2007, failed to acknowledge the possibility of widespread radiological hazard. Though there was some evidence that several barrels of radioactive material had been buried at depth at the far edge of the site, the strategy relied one very limited survey from 1994, and on the basis of this concluded that there was no significant risk to human health posed by the reported buried material.
It failed to acknowledge the real problem – risk from unknown material buried in other parts of the old tip. This collective ignoring of DEFRA advice by the regulatory bodies is confirmed in a Health and Safety Executive response to a complaint by a local resident in June 2007:
"Radioactive contamination – as no intrusive work is being undertaken yet in the areas identified from studies the issue of exposure to workers or others in the area should not arise"
Further evidence of the lack of planning and preparation is demonstrated by the ‘Unexpected Contamination’ Remediation Change Notes submitted to the ODA’s Planning Decisions Team. There was little excuse for this contamination being unexpected, as the existence of the old tip was no mystery and the potential for this contamination was clear. Basic radiological screening would have warned of problems – and hundreds of core samples had been taken across the site to test for other contaminants.
The ‘background radiation’ counts subsequently recorded on survey sheets are also unusually high at around twice the expected natural level for the area, suggesting a pervasive problem that should have been detected at a much earlier stage, and warranted caution and detailed investigation.
Whether all the sources of radiation were identified is doubtful, as despite the scale and extent of the earthworks there was only one Radiation Protection Advisor on site to perform surveying between September 2007 and May 2008. Many areas were too difficult or dangerous to access.
In addition to the hazard of contaminated dust, the construction site was easily accessible for members of the public to come into direct contact with radioactive material. This can be seen in the photos below. The allotments were being used as a route for construction vehicles and there were no access restrictions or signage in place.
A total of around 3000 tonnes of the ‘unexpected’ excavated radioactive soil was removed from the vicinity of the allotments following their closure, together with 150kg of artefacts such as radium dials which are still being stored on the site. The soil was reburied in Tower Hamlets about 500m south of the allotment site, together with further radioactive waste from the Main Stadium area – close to waterways and planned residential developments. Since over 550,000 tonnes of other waste has been removed from the Olympic site to landfill, retaining the material in this sensitive location suggests it may be too dangerous to dispose of legally elsewhere.
The ODA and other authorities involved in the Olympic preparations were negligent in disregarding guidelines and permitting intrusive works to proceed in an area with significant risk of radioactive contamination – without adequate oversight, precautions or risk management. The ODA, as local planning authority, were responsible for imposing and enforcing planning conditions in order to ensure contaminated land was properly managed and remediated at all stages.
Julie Sumner, who spent much of the summer of 2007 on her plot near the excavations, concludes:
“One of our arguments for leaving the allotments alone was the level of contamination safely captured underneath. Our fear was that our beloved land, surrounding nature reserve and river would have unknown quantities of contamination released into them by the vast earthworks planned. Little did we know that we could be put directly at risk too.”
Dust spreads as the contaminated West Ham Tip is excavated – 21st June 2007. At this time Clays Lane Estate was inhabited, the allotments were fully open and the construction site easily accessible to the public.
This Remediation Method Statement was not submitted until 04/09/2007 and was never given planning approval. There was no approved Method Statement until May 2008. Works continued regardless with ineffective dust suppression.
Hennikers Ditch culvert works already far advanced while Manor Gardens still in use in September 2007. Radioactive contamination was later identified in the excavations and in arisings. Clay’s Lane Estate is immediately behind the red crane
Related articles and coverage:
Tonnes of radioactive waste casts doubt over London’s Olympic stadium legacy The Guardian 20/06/2010
London 2012 – A Rubbish Olympics…
Contamination and Controversy in the Olympic Park Games Monitor
The new Olympics time bomb Evening Standard 24/11/2006