A five-year-old boy and his mother have won a “David and Goliath” legal case against the Environment Agency (EA) over a Staffordshire landfill site accused of emitting noxious gases that risk shortening her son’s life.
Lawyers for Mathew Richards argued there is a “public health emergency” in the vicinity of Walleys Quarry in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme, claiming hydrogen sulphide (H2S) emissions are affecting “hundreds and probably thousands of local people”.
At a hearing in August, the High Court in London heard that Mathew was a vulnerable child, born prematurely at 26 weeks with a chronic lung disease and needed oxygen support for 19 months.
The five-year-old’s doctor told the court that as the H2S emissions were preventing his recovery and lung development, he was at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the future which would dramatically reduce his life expectancy.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Fordham made a declaration that the EA “must implement” Public Health England’s advice to reduce concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in the local area to one part per billion, less than an eighth of the level that can be smelled, by January 2022.
He said: “Based on all the evidence, about Mathew, and about the emissions, and about the implications of the emissions for Mathew, I am satisfied that there is a direct effect on Mathew’s home, family life and private life from adverse effects of severe environmental pollution.”
In her evidence, Mathew’s mother Rebecca Currie described fumes from the site as “a stomach-wrenching smell like rotten eggs”, as other residents said they suffered headaches and nosebleeds which they attributed to the smell from the quarry.
Ms Currie, who lives approximately 400 metres away from the landfill, previously said she would have been forced to move away from her home with her son if the legal action failed.
The court previously heard the EA, which is monitoring the site’s air-quality levels, had taken “very substantial steps” at the landfill site and “continues to keep matters under review”.
Public Health England’s position is that “currently any risk to long-term health is likely to be small, but a risk cannot completely be excluded if exposure were to continue at current levels”, the court heard.
The judge said: “It will require pressing and ongoing action which will, in my judgment, make a very real difference so far as the air which Mathew, and his community, breathes is concerned.”
He added: “I accept it is not necessary, nor is it appropriate, for this court to say that there is a current breach by the EA of its legal obligations.
“I have made clear that I am not satisfied, on the evidence, that the EA has yet addressed its legal duties in the way that it must.
“But there is an obvious and pressing public interest imperative that it must do so, as a matter of urgency.
“It is well able to do so.”
After the judgment, Ms Currie told the PA news agency: “This decision today, it’s going to give Mathew and the community fresh air again. Not what we’ve been breathing in.
“Now I can stay in my own home because I was being forced out. Obviously I couldn’t let Mathew live there any longer if the answer hadn’t gone in his favour today.
“If you’ve got a child and you need to fight, fight. Don’t back off from it. Do what I’ve done – fight for it.”
She added that residents felt “fobbed off” by the EA despite “thousands of complaints”.
Mathew’s solicitor Rebekah Carrier said they were “delighted” with the decision after the ruling.
She said: “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: “We have every sympathy with the local community, who should not have to live with the distress caused by landfill gas being released from Walleys Quarry.
“That’s why we are requiring the operator, Walleys Quarry Ltd, to take action.
“The court agreed that we are right to rely on assessments and advice from Public Health England and did not find a present breach by the Environment Agency of its legal obligations.
“We have a dedicated team working closely with our partners through a multi-agency forum to resolve the issues and to improve the situation for local people.
“We will continue to use our regulatory powers to require Walleys Quarry Ltd to bring hydrogen sulphide emissions under control.”
The EA added that it will seek to appeal some parts of the judgment.