Taken from the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy when you see a seller.
Complaints by residents about the possible health impact of wood dust emissions from a recycling plant have been dismissed by the Environment Agency.
People living near Mossley in Greater Manchester fear dust generated by the processing site is affecting their health, but the agency is satisfied the plant is safe. The decision could make it easier for firms to gain permission to recycle waste wood into pellets for electricity generation at biomass power plants.
Supporters claim these plants divert material from going to landfill and reduce reliance on imported energy.
Under the Renewables Obligation Scheme, the government is committed to seeing 14 per cent of the UK’s total energy needs being generated from renewable sources by 2020. The current figure is close to three per cent but there are numerous new plants on the cards, including the Barton Renewable Energy Plant in Trafford, which gained planning consent this year.
Plevin, a major biomass processor, is currently building a £5 million plant on a 50-acre site in Hazelhead, South Yorkshire. This will predominantly produce wood chips for E.ON’s £120 million renewable energy plant near Sheffield.
Dust and noise
Hazelhead will process up to 150,000 tonnes of waste wood a year – 50,000 tonnes less than is processed at Plevin’s Mossley site. There, members of the Mossley Environmental Action Group say high levels of wood dust are damaging their health. Residents also complain of being kept awake by noise from delivery wagons.
The action group has filmed dust being released into the air when woodpiles that are stacked outside are grabbed and broken before being scooped up and taken inside for processing into wood pellets. Sixty people took part in a demonstration against the plant in 2011, and the results of a door-to-door health survey they conducted are currently being scientifically analysed. The group wants the Environment Agency to urgently conduct tests on the dust.
Resident Donna Liley moved to a house around 200 metres from the plant six years ago. She said: “Within a year I had horrendous headaches, constant nausea, malaise and a general feeling of being unwell. I have had six chest infections since living here, have a constant streaming nose and endure numerous migraines.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies wood dust as a Group 1 carcinogenic agent, which means it is directly involved in causing cancer. UK standards allow a particulate matter concentration of up to 25 micrograms per cubic metre but the WHO is concerned about the safety of levels over 10 micrograms.
The Environment Agency tested dust samples at Mossley between September 2011 and January 2012 and found they averaged 8.8 micrograms per cubic metre. No chemical tests have been carried out on the dust but Liley believes these are vital. She said: “[The Environment Agency] tested in the months when it is much wetter and we want them to conduct all year round tests. In addition, we want tests which include finding out what chemicals are in the dust as the recycled wood comes from former industrial plants and could include cadmium, lead, copper, zinc, chromium and arsenic.”
An Environment Agency spokesman said it had worked with partners including Public Health England and the NHS. “They are satisfied there have been no negative health effects in the local population as a result of the site’s activities. If any evidence to the contrary comes to light we will take appropriate action,” he said.
He confirmed that no risk assessment had been needed for the plant and there is no requirement for activities to be undertaken inside the building.
Mossley Environmental Action Group is not convinced. Liley said: “We feel we are the victims of the government’s need to boost renewable energy and we worry that other people right across the UK will suffer the same fate in the near future.”