Our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION, on this week’s opening of the Viridor Incinerator Academy, a primary for four- to 11-year-olds, that could literally take their breath away
Reports this week from China have offered scientific evidence that air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence for people of all ages.
This, coupled with the news that a south London anti-pollution campaigner is closer to securing a second inquest into the death of her asthmatic nine-year-old daughter, ought to cause reasonable concerns among local parents preparing to pack their youngsters off to school next week.
The mounting evidence of the health dangers from air pollution on young, developing lungs may yet become a real worry to parents of children attending Sutton’s Hackbridge Primary.
Or the Viridor Incinerator Academy, as it might be better known.
The school is little more than half a mile from the incinerator’s particulate-spewing chimneys.
Sutton’s Liberal Democrat-run council has managed to push through the expansion of the near-600-pupil school and nursery on Hackbridge Road in Wallington, using Metropolitan Open Land – the equivalent of Green Belt.
The incinerator, operated by Viridor, is due to fire-up into full operation on October 16, the start of at least 25 years of burning millions of tons of rubbish from four London borough, including Croydon, much of it trucked in from across south-east England.
Parents of the four- to 11-year-olds attending Hackbridge Primary, which begins its new school year on Tuesday, will doubtless be thrilled to learn that the passifhaus build of the school extension includes triple-glazed windows.
That might help to keep out some of the air pollution.
But unlike the Croydon primary school built next to the busy four-lane Purley Way (where council officials claimed in an official planning report that there was no issue at the site with air pollution), Hackbridge Primary will not be equipped with any special, and expensive, air filter system to keep the noxious particulate pollution out of its classrooms.
According to Sutton Council’s own figures, the Viridor incinerator at Beddington will generate 440 tonnes per year of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and 3,300 tonnes of nitrous oxide emissions.
The council reckons that, “Measured from the eastern most point of the school building to the centre of the stacks the distance is 890 metres.” Checks using independent GPS tools online suggest that even this distance may be an over-estimate.
The Hackbridge School expansion was granted planning permission based on an air quality assessment which was conducted before the Viridor incinerator was operational.
The air quality assessment took no account of the hundreds of diesel-fuelled HGV truck journeys expected to take place, 24/7, on the roads near the school, to bring rubbish to the incinerator for burning or to carry away the ash waste materials.
And like a 500-pound gorilla in the room, the incinerator was entirely unmentioned by the independent experts commissioned by Sutton Council.
But as far as Sutton Council is concerned, a new air quality assessment for the school “is not required”.
In a recent response to a Freedom of Information request, the council stated, “An Air Quality Assessment was prepared by consultants and submitted as part of the planning application process. All planning applications are open to public consultation and comments are invited, with copies of relevant applications also shared with regulatory bodies for consideration.
“The Air Quality Assessment for the new Hackbridge School took into account the impacts on future occupants from both existing sources and, where relevant, committed developments within the vicinity of the proposed development.”
“Where relevant”. This appears to be an admission by Sutton Council, as the planning authority, that it did not consider that a waste incinerator to be built less than a mile from the site of the school was “relevant”.
In a reply to another FoI request, the council explained, “In line with normal council policies a full suite of surveys was commissioned prior to the school being submitted for planning approval. These surveys included a detailed Transport Assessment and an Air Quality Assessment, including current levels and projected levels of air quality. The resultant proposals for traffic management include for a new crossing table at the south end of the school, on London Road, and traffic calming zig zags for the whole length of the school, along the London Road.”
That air quality assessment report for Sutton Council was written in 2015 by Bristol-based Air Quality Consultants. Most of the 74-page report concerns itself with the environmental impact likely to be made by the school, in the construction of the building and through the additional traffic the school may generate once the gates open.
AQC’s report hardly touches on the issue of air pollution’s potential impact on the children and staff at the school.
It is as if the consultants were trying to ignore the incinerator.
Or that they had been told to do so.
In a section headlined “Site description and baseline conditions”, the consultants describe the building’s site and its proximity to the railway line 200 metres away. This was dismissed (the track is used mainly by electric-powered trains, not polluting diesel engines).
The report also looked at industrial land uses in the vicinity, identifying the two landfill sites and the sewage treatment works near to the school.
In the case of the Beddington Farmlands landfill site, 415 metres east of the school, which was “currently operational” in 2015, the report states that, “It is considered that dust and odours arising from this landfill site have the potential to impact on the proposed development.”
Hackbridge residents know only too well about “the potential” for impact…
The report adds that, “Odours arising from the STW…” meaning the sewage treatment works, 1.2kilometres to the east of the school, “also have the potential to impact upon the proposed development.”
The report states: “It is important to consider the proposed school location in terms of the proximity to dust and odour sources from the Beddington Farmlands landfill and Thames Water STW, and the prevailing wind direction for the area.”
The report’s authors then helpfully include a wind rose, a graph demonstrating the incidence and strength of wind, as measured at London City Airport, about 12 miles away (saving themselves the cash of having to monitor the wind flow for the area they were actually commissioned to report on).
Using this as evidence of the wind flows around the Hackbridge school, the report states, “Since the proposed school will be upwind most of the time and located over 400 metres away from these dust and odours sources, it is considered unlikely the proposed development will be affected by dust or odour arising from these sources.
“The impact of these sources on air quality at the proposed development is thus judged to be negligible and not considered further in this assessment.”
Job’s a good ‘un.
Sutton Council had granted planning permission for Viridor’s incinerator in May 2013 – two whole years before the report on air quality at Hackbridge Primary School was drafted.
Parents and staff at Hackbridge Primary will soon have a chance to monitor the impact of having a school less than 850 metres from an industrial incinerator.
The air quality research published in China this week found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.
“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” said Xi Chen at Yale School of Public Health in the United States, a member of the research team.
Concerned parents at Hackbridge may wish to consider getting Sutton Council to pay for proper monitoring of pollution levels at the school, after the death of a south London child living close to a road with illegally high levels of pollution has been linked to poor air quality.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who lives not far from the South Circular in Lewisham, has delivered a 100,000-signature petition to the Attorney General calling for a new inquest into the death, in 2013, of her primary school-aged daughter Ella.
Ella had endured three years of seizures before her death. The inquest concluded her death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma.
However, a recent report by one of the country’s leading experts on asthma and air pollution, Professor Stephen Holgate, said there was a “striking association” between Ella’s emergency hospital admissions and recorded spikes in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter, PM10s, the most noxious pollutants.
Both NO2 and PM10 are known to be by-products of waste incineration, but were never considered when Sutton Council commissioned the air quality experts’ report into the Viridor Incinerator Academy.
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