Written for The Ecologist, published 14th December 2015
Almost a year ago I wrote an article for The Ecologist entitled "death by landfill". The article focussed the case of 7 year old Zane Gbangbola, who was killed in his bed during the floods of February 2014. Not by water, but by poison gas.
Given the lack of information at that time, the article focussed on how John Major's Conservative government of the early 1990s reneged on a promise to introduce strict laws on contaminated land. These would have required historic land contamination to be tracked down and, where appropriate, made safe. Had they been enacted they may have prevented Zane's death twenty years later.
Almost two years on from Zane's death, in advance of the inquest (already a year overdue), new information is beginning to emerge on the events of that day. These documents raise questions as to whether the Government covered-up the unsettling facts of Zane's death, and its implication for Britain's legacy of contaminated land.
Inquests should take place within a year following the death of a person in unexpected or suspicious circumstances. While there have been pre-inquest hearings, 21 months after the event there has still been no formal coroner's hearing in this case.
From the documents disclosed to the inquiry earlier this year it was clear that the incident had been dealt with by the fire and rescue service as serious chemical contamination. Their equipment had detected cyanide, and neighbouring houses were also evacuated as the residents said they felt unwell. High levels of carbon monoxide were not detected.
Shortly after that, however, the police explained the incident as the result of carbon monoxide poisoning – and spent a year trying to investigate that cause. From the very beginning this threw the investigation of what happened that night into disarray.
Zane did not have levels of carbon monoxide in his blood which would have been toxic. Likewise his father, who was paralysed as a result of exposure to gas, was diagnosed with cyanide poisoning.
Despite the medical evidence, official investigations tried to find evidence for carbon monoxide. Even during the recent pre-inquest hearing, at which many parties involved with the case are officially represented, efforts were made to challenge the evidence produced by the fire brigade that cyanide had been detected.
This highlights the problem with the contaminated land issues today – there is a large vested interest against disclosing its existence.
Whether it be the local authorities, who might have to pay for emergency testing and clean-up operations; or the owner of the site who might not be able to sell or develop it; or the waste lobby generally, who want to prevent tighter regulation on waste disposal operations – there are a lot of groups all desperately hoping that the Coroner will cite carbon monoxide poisoning as the cause of Zane's death.
As outlined in last year's article, there is a critical issue here about the involvement of the state in Zane's death. This goes beyond the fact that the Government reneged on implementing tighter contaminated land law in 1994.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Surrey County Council have denied land-filling took place at this site. According to local householders the local authority, Spelthorne Borough Council, failed to inform those buying houses around the site that the area has been used for depositing waste in the past – and have consistently down-played any potential hazards from the site.
That position is at odds with the Environment Agency – whose on-line public register maps denote that the site has been filled with waste. Many other sites in the area, all filled with waste historically exported from London, have been found to contain cyanide contaminated wastes. Some have required excavation and 'remediation' to minimise the risk to the public.
The site behind Zane's family home was filled from the 1930s until the 1980s. What records do exist indicate a number of failures to control waste deposit on the site. Despite this the pollution officer from Spelthorne Borough Council has stated that 'there were no contraventions of waste approvals'.
What is more significant is that both Spelthorne and the Environment Agency appeared to know of the dangers the site presented – though they argue that any such knowledge was hypothetical since it was not backed-up by hard data from testing by the site's owners. Some records suggest that there was a conscious decision by Spelthorne and the Environment Agency not to highlight the risks to those living nearby.
In early October I attended the 'pre-inquest' hearing at the Surrey Coroner's Court in Woking. One of the key legal arguments that day related to Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Where the state has some culpability in the death of a person the courts require that there be a detailed investigation of the role of the state – in order to avoid any chance that the state may have used its powers to avoid blame, or cover-up the facts of the case. It's not just that the state shouldn't kill people. It is important that there is no demonstrable suspicion that the actions by authorities contributed to a person's death.
After hearing the legal arguments from the various parties for a number of hours, the Coroner ruled that there was no evidence of negligence by the state sufficient to meet the applicable guidelines. Therefore a detailed investigation of the role of the state need not be carried out.
At the subsequent pre-inquiry hearing on 7th December the case took an extraordinary turn – casting yet more doubt on the Coroner's verdict that there was no state involvement.
New evidence was handed to the Coroner from the Environment Agency. This put a whole new light on the events of February 2014, and the regulatory processes carried out by various authorities in the years leading up to that day.
What was not disclosed before was that the cyanide levels on the upper floors on the house were much higher than on the ground floor. The Environment Agency were unable to take tests because of the toxic hazard, so the fire brigade took them. These indicated levels of cyanide up to 25,000 parts per million – very toxic.
This calls into doubt the efforts of both the police and local authorities to pin the cause on carbon monoxide.
As a result of those findings, the fire brigade immediately triggered the 'national incident recording system' at 5.40am. This led to senior police officers becoming involved in the response, and the Government's COBRA emergency committee.
Parts of the files submitted to the Coroner's office contain blank pages. There are also references stating that –
information… may need to be vetted to ensure no sensitive material is allowed into the public domain
What is clear is that there were various meetings of the 'silver' and 'gold' commanders at the area incident room, feeding back information on the event to COBRA over the 8th and 9th of February. The COBRA Committee considered the case at 5pm on the 8th, 12 hours after the fire brigade raised the alert, and again the following day.
At some point it appears that COBRA may have decided to restrict information about the incident. It may have been done for the best of administrative reasons – perhaps to avoid piling any more panic on top of the already stressed situation in the Thames Valley at that point – but that decision had a damaging effect on the subsequent investigations into Zane's death.
The restriction on disclosure about cyanide led to another story, based on carbon monoxide, being circulated – even though there was no evidence to support it. That subsequently misled the police's investigation into Zane's death, even though senior figures within the police service carrying out the investigation must have been aware of the true facts of the case.
However, as noted above, there are many interests in this case for whom a finding of 'death by cyanide poisoning' is far, far more problematic than carbon monoxide. That is why the open investigation of the role of public authorities in this case is so crucial to achieving justice for Zane.
In late October the floods of 2014 were debated in Parliament, during which the local MP, Kwasi Kwarteng, stated –
Seven-year-old Zane Gbangbola died during the floods in February 2014, in tragic circumstances that have still not been explained.
In response the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DEFRA, Rory Stewart, stated –
Before I deal with the general point, let me try to address most directly the question of responsibility raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. There is clearly a major issue. I am very keen to add the Government’s condolences in respect of Zane Gbangbola’s tragic death. That real tragedy is an example of why it is so important to get these things right.
As part of a recent investigation by the Daily Mail, journalists interviewed former Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He stated that –
I do not recall hydrogen cyanide being mentioned at all. The briefing was wholly in the context of us being concerned about private generators.
The difficulty is that while local government might report to Eric Pickles, the Environment Agency are not managed from the Department for Communities and Local Government. Consequently would he have received those briefings?
David Cameron had taken personal responsibility for chairing COBRA meetings two days before Zane's death – would he have been briefed first? The Environment Agency's response to such incidents would have been reported to the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson – although there is confusion about responsibility at that point as he had just been admitted to hospital for emergency surgery.
The responsibility for how this incident was handled by COBRA is not clear – and will not be unless all the records from both the Government and police are released into the public domain.
In response to this new evidence the Surrey Coroner has now ordered that all relevant documents, including records from the COBRA Committee, be submitted to his investigation before Christmas. That is likely to require action by DEFRA minister Rory Stewart, investigating the actions his predecessor in his post, who had responsibility for management of flooding and the operations of the Environment Agency.
The bigger story here is not simply the confusion which has delayed and diverted the investigations into Zane's death. It's far more widespread, and significant than that.
What this incident highlights is the toxic legacy that exists today across Britain – and the extent to which those involved have an interest in suppressing information about those hazards. The failure to disclose information to the public, especially by the local authority – Spelthorne Borough – is a significant factor in Zane's case.
Be it the local authorities or the landowners involved, those who may have the evidence have no interest in disclosing it because of the public backlash and expense such disclosures may cause. Recent changes to pollution contaminated land guidance weaken the protection of the public yet further.
In 1994, in its fit of deregulatory zeal, the then Conservative government squashed any effort to investigate Britain's legacy of toxic land – even though the hazards of these sites has been known for some time, especially landfill sites.
Twenty years later, that rolling back of regulation of contaminated land was arguably a contributory factor in Zane's death. Had the family been properly informed they might not have bought the house. In any case, the risks sites such as this present would have required an early site investigation, and the implementation of measures to protect the nearby houses.
Following the Dawes Report in 1929, London began to formalise the disposal of its waste. Until the 20th Century London had reclaimed much of its own waste within the capitols manufacturing industries. London's construction boom during the 1930s, and following the Second World War, created gravel pits and clay pits all around the Home Counties. Those pits were in turn used for the disposal of London's waste, which included large quantities of toxic materials from industry and town gasworks.
The situation was no different around the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, South Wales and West/South Yorkshire, who also exported their waste across their own hinterlands for decades.
Climate change will change weather patterns. The fact the gravel pit behind Zane's home was inundated with water was due to the exceptional level of rain which created the floods. Across Britain there are hundreds of sites with have been filled with industrial or mine waste from before the 1980s. Though they may currently be stable, they may suddenly become a toxic problem as rain patterns and local hydrological systems change with the climate.
For example, around the coast of Britain there are many 'landraise' sites (heaps rather than holes full of waste) in salt marshes which are likely to become unstable and erode as sea levels rise – spreading their toxic content along the shorelines of our estuaries.
This is the deeper reality which the current regulatory framework for contaminated land fails to acknowledge. Irrespective of what the vested interests in the development lobby desire, this issue cannot be 'buried' any longer. The Government must revisit the issue of land contamination, and put right the mistakes of the 1990s. The effects of land contamination are not just an issue of risk today. How those risks will change with the changing climate needs to be given urgent consideration.