Tall chimney tower billowing out smoke

Landmark ruling puts pressure on Environment Agency to tackle air pollution

“Public health emergency” called as landmark judgement passed
08 December 2021 , Katie Coyne

A case brought to protect the health of a disabled five-year-old boy could open the door to more cases involving people consistently exposed to excessive air pollution levels and even those affected by climate change.

Early in 2021, the high court discovered how Mathew Richards from Silverdale in Staffordshire was on a path to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adulthood. The condition would reduce his life expectancy due to exposure to hydrogen sulphide from the Walleys Quarry Landfill site, 400 metres away from his home.

Matthew was born 26 weeks premature, suffered from chronic lung disease and needed oxygen for almost two years.

This is the first domestic judgement that has explicitly ruled that a reduction in life expectancy can be identified with a “real and imminent risk” to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This could open the door to more cases involving exposure to excessive pollution levels.

“There must be real and significant change, as a matter of urgency”

Mr Justice Fordham said that in order to protect Mathew’s human rights there must be “real and significant change, as a matter of urgency”. The high court ruled that the hydrogen sulphide levels must be reduced to an eighth of the current level by January 2022.

The court accepted medical evidence from Dr Ian Sinha of Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, who said there was an “unexpectedly excessive burden of respiratory illness and death in Silverdale” and this was a “public health emergency”. Thousands of residents are also affected, and local campaign group ‘Stop the Stink’ supported Mathew’s case.

Mathew’s mother, Rebecca Currie said, “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.”

Rebekah Carrier, Mathew’s solicitor and director of Hopkin Murray Beskine, said they would be keeping a “very close eye” on the situation to ensure the EA took action. She also paid tribute to Rebecca Currie who “bravely stood up” to the EA to protect her child. She added: “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.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency are committed to tackling the problems at Walleys Quarry to improve things for everyone as quickly as possible. 

“We’ve already instructed Walleys Quarry Ltd to make substantial improvements to reduce hydrogen sulphide levels to those assessed to be safe by UK Health Security Agency. We are seeing lower levels of hydrogen sulphide escaping from the site, and whilst this is good news, we know there is more to be done.

“In its judgment handed down in mid-September 2021, the high court concluded that there was no present breach by the Environment Agency of its legal obligations. We remain committed to tackling the problems at Walleys Quarry to improve the situation, with the timescales in the judgment firmly in mind.”

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