Council needs more time to assess danger of notorious Rainham landfill site

Havering Council claims it needs six more months to assess the danger of an illegal landfill, despite knowing of “potential risks to human health” more than a decade ago.

The site, known as Launder’s Lane in Rainham, is an unauthorised dumping ground that, in warmer months, suffers from regular fires which send acrid smoke over thousands of nearby homes.

In response to residents’ growing alarm about the health impacts of this pollution, Havering Council began a year-long study of local air quality last summer.

Council leader Ray Morgon says the issue is “complex” due to issues of land ownership and that air quality monitoring needs to be carried out over a long period to give a “clear indication” of the risks to human health.

However, a report obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service shows that Havering Council and the Environment Agency were warned of potential risks twelve years ago.

A survey of the towering waste site, which reaches up to two storeys high, was carried out in 2011 after the police raided the site and found a cannabis farm in shipping containers.

Surveyors found evidence of substances that “could pose a risk to human health”, such as lead and benzo(a)pyrene, which is a large group of carcinogens.

They recommended further investigation and warned that people could be exposed through “inhalation, ingestion or skin contact”.

During the dig, the surveyors noticed that snow around the holes was melting, suggesting decomposing waste was “warming the overlying ground”.

Based on the 25 four-metre deep pits, they estimated that “30,000 to 40,000 cubic metres” of unregulated waste had been dumped there.

They added: “Recently landfilled sites included domestic and commercial waste including documents, wood, paper, glass, plastic, mattresses, pieces of furniture or equipment, cables, netting, clothing and other fabrics and occasional empty medical waste packaging.”

A more detailed analysis of one soil sample found sulphate, suggesting the waste “may not be suitable” to be moved to a legal landfill site.

The London Fire Brigade – whose staff are not allowed to enter the site due to concerns about explosions and falling into crevices – was called out 100 times last year alone.

Many residents fear that the smoke, which is worse when fires flare in warmer months, is linked to asthma and more serious lung diseases.

In July last year, the council’s newly-elected leader, Cllr Morgon of the Havering Residents Association, formed a working group with the Environment Agency, the London Fire Brigade and local MP Jon Cruddas to discuss the problem.

The only clear action taken so far has been to commission a scientific assessment of whether there is a “serious risk to public health” from air pollution.

However, local fears grew further last month after ITV London reported that there is already an “unacceptable risk” to residents’ health.

During a nine-day study, a University College London team found that toxic PM2.5 pollution is 70 per cent higher in streets close to the site than in other parts of Rainham and high rates of serious lung disease.

Mark Wheatley, of the Rainham Against Pollution steering group, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “It’s frightening what people are actually breathing in, the [UCL] professor is gravely concerned but our council is saying they need a year.

“Last year was beyond unbearable, people are scared, the summer months are approaching and we don’t think we can physically go through this again.

“It was bad last night and while I’m speaking my throat hurts, I couldn’t imagine people whose streets and roads back onto that field.”

The current landowner, DMC Services (Essex) Limited purchased the land for £440,000 in 2017.

Co-owner Jerry O’Donovan told the LDRS his company takes its responsibilities “very seriously” and claimed he has been “in dialogue” with Havering Council for a number of years.

However, he did not respond when asked whether he has any plans to make the land safer.

The council spokesperson said there “would be scope” to consider legal action against DMC Services but acknowledged that the company “inherited” the issues rather than causing them.

They added: “The scope and options for action is subject to legal advice and the nature of risk posed by the site to the wider community, which is still being investigated, would form part of any decision on appropriate action to be taken.”

Councillor Morgon told the LDRS that before Havering can take any action it needs to continue monitoring the air so it has a “clear indication” of what is happening on the land.

He added: “Some possible solutions could be costly, which would be challenging for us as we have had to make year-on-year savings to our annual council budget and still have to deliver vital services to our residents.

“However, this will not stop us from trying to find a way of solving this.”

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency told the LDRS that it deals with fly-tipping reports on a “case-by-case” basis but added that Havering is the “lead authority” for regulating activity at Launder’s Lane.

They added: “The Environment Agency absolutely recognises the level of concern of local residents, which is why we have attended the site many times to reduce harm to the local community and the environment.”

It has been nineteen years since Havering Council last took legal action against owners of the site when officers found “alien” piles of waste had been dumped there.

Launder’s Lane, also known as Arnold’s Fields, was used for gravel and sand extraction until the late 1990s.

In the year 2000, the council gave Viking UK (Essex) Ltd permission to restore the land to create a gently sloping “community woodland” up to half a metre high using soil from elsewhere.

But four years later Havering Council officers found piles of unknown waste up to 3.5m high and issued an enforcement notice to its new landowner, North London Developments Limited.

A council spokesperson claimed it was “not possible” to take enforcement action against the company as it liquidated after losing an appeal against the notice two years later.

In 2010, the council was reportedly “in negotations” with the then-landowner, 45-year-old Joseph Reilly from Stephen Green.

However, Reilly was jailed for 12 years the following year in connection with the cannabis factory discovered by police, alongside firearms and ammunition, on the site.

Over the next ten years, the public repeatedly raised the alarm about fly-tipping and increasingly frequent fires.

Former Conservative council leader Damian White has not responded to local MP Jon Cruddas’ suggestions that his party, which was in power until 2022, “ignored” his calls for action over four years.

The Environment Agency prosecuted three East London men for industrial-scale fly-tipping at sites including Launder’s Lane in 2014, although it is unclear whether they had any link to the site’s owner at the time.

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter