Coastal landfill erosion

Walney island.                                  (Alamy Images)

With this picture of landfill rubbish in an eroding sea wall at Walney Island our member Ben Auton introduces a topic of serious concern along with a call for action.

Here in Sutton Coldfield we are as far from the sea as we can get, but this doesn’t prevent our horror at seeing plastics and other waste ending up in our oceans, our beaches, our fish, and eventually our food-chain. BBC1’s recent programme War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita highlighted the dumping of the UK’s plastics waste in East Asian countries and how that affects UK waters and seas globally.

There is, however, a more chilling cause of waste washing up on our own beaches – waste that comes from our own landfills. Of the estimated 26,000 landfill sites in the UK there are (at least) 1264 historic landfills in England and Wales that fall within tidal zones but are undefended. Accordingly they are susceptible to coastal erosion. Landfills have often been placed in low-lying areas next to the coast and around estuaries precisely because such areas are prone to flooding and the land is accordingly cheaper. This has been causing problems for years.

A recent study (Brand et al. 2017) conducted by Queen Mary University of London examined several landfills on the Thames Estuary and were concerned to discover breaches in the sea defenses and contaminants in the surrounding environment. Most landfills have sea water in them because their floors were not capped and sea water has seeped in through the ground. This seepage allows contaminants like lead, cadmium and cancer-causing compounds such as polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) to escape into the local environment. The areas surrounding some coastal landfills have estuarine muds well in excess of marine sediment quality guidelines.

In other cases like East Tilbury, the researchers found that breaches in the sea defenses allow waste to escape unchecked from landfills into the sea. This enters estuary and sea environments adding to the already major problem of plastics and other waste being eaten by fish and seabirds. Such unchecked damage to wildlife can have catastrophic effects on biodiversity and human fish consumption. Many of these coastal landfills are adjacent to protected areas like internationally recognised wetland areas (Ramsar sites), other sites of special scientific interest, nature reserves and bathing waters.

In a particularly ‘novel’ idea, waste from Hadleigh Marsh Landfill, which closed in 1987, was used to build the flood defences to protect the landfill and nearby railway line. As this flood defence erodes it is releasing its waste straight into the sea.

With rising sea levels and more stormy weather in the UK, coastal flood defences are under greater threat of failure. Encroachment of the sea will inevitably result from climate change, and all our coastal assets require protection or better management. More coastal defences and better lining and capping of these landfills would be an option but the sea will eventually always win. Relocating this waste as part of a managed retreat is believed to be the best option but it comes with a hefty price tag.

Lack of funding is the primary reason preventing solution to these problems. The austerity policy budgets of the Environment Agency and local authorities have meant that flood protection has had to be focused on built-up areas instead of protecting wastelands. Until further research proves that this contaminated land is causing harm to humans, local authorities are going to be unwilling to do anything without threat of prosecution (see Environmental Protection Act 1990 Part 2A regulations).

What can you do?
There are many ways to get involved, from picking up five pieces of litter on your next day at the seaside; to increasing awareness of this issue; and contacting politicians such as your MP or MEPs to ask them to tighten water resource and environmental protection laws and to include coastal landfill erosion as a major issue.

Figure 1: landfill rubbish in sea cliff on Walney Island, Barrow In Furness, photograph by Ashley Cooper, Alamy Images.

Brand, James & Spencer, Kate & O’Shea, Francis & E. Lindsay, John. (2017). Potential pollution risks of historic landfills on low-lying coasts and estuaries: Potential pollution risks of historic landfills. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water. e1264. 10.1002/wat2.1264.

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