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In a hole

So what notice did the UK Government take of geoscientific advice in disposing of contaminated carcasses?

The usual advice to someone who has got into a hole is to stop digging. The foot and mouth crisis has however forced the government and its agencies to choose between some uncomfortable options. The fear among geoscientists observing pit preparations via the media is that burial may store up problems in the longer term, and that before too long, it won't only be the choices that are unpalatable.

The problem surfaced in early April, when a nasty bout of finger-pointing broke out between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), the Environment Agency (EA), the farmer of Low Houselop Farm, Co Durham (Mr Douglas Forster) and a contracting company called Snowie (Mr Alistair Snow).

It all began when Mr Forster realised that his cattle had contracted foot and mouth. He telephoned the MAFF and within the day vets confirmed the disease. Mr Forster and MAFF agreed that the best course was to bury the 650 sheep and 242 cattle on Mr Forster's land. There were two potential sites - an existing gravel pit and quarry, and a field site some way away.

Because the plan was to bury, the Environment Agency was asked for its advice. It advised against the gravel pit because of its proximity to a water source that fed the farm and flowed into a nearby river (Houselop Beck, a tributary of the Wear). The next day, the cattle were slaughtered and the same evening, a 10-person team from Snowie's began burying the carcasses - in the gravel pit.

Three weeks or so later, Mr Forster noticed a smell of disinfectant in his water supply. Mr Forster told reporters that it was all the fault of the EA. He said he saw a fax from the EA in the hands of a MAFF official, with a big X marking the spot - the wrong spot, as it turned out. The EA on the other hand stuck to its line that they advised against the quarry, and that "for whatever reason" their advice was not followed.

MAFF admitted it was advised against the quarry and that it intended to follow the advice. However, when the contractor arrived, "for reasons which are not clear" (said MAFF), the carcasses were indeed buried where they should not have been. Their spokesman suggested that perhaps the contractor and the farmer came to "a private arrangement". The implication of corruption in the use of MAFF funds was clear, but it was denied by both parties.

In the end the Army was faced with exhuming the rotting carcasses of up to 900 animals which, after being buried for three weeks would be, in an Army spokesman's delightful phrase, "little more than stew".

It was clear from this sorry tale that the emergency had left the UK government and its agencies with too much to do in far too little time - far too little, certainly, to take geological advice (or even to observe it correctly when they had it). There also seemed little doubt that in such a climate the chances of best practice in landfill design being observed were - to say the least - slim.

Several Fellows rang the Society asking just this question - how much notice was being taken by Government of geological conditions and landfill design? Scenes of hurriedly constructed unlined holes in Cumbria did not fill such geotechnical Fellows with great confidence. And not long after news broke of the mistake in County Durham, the Environment Agency issued its first "Category 1" water pollution incident connected with the current crisis, when hundreds of dead fish and eels turned up in a river on Anglesey. Disinfectant used to spray the cattle during a cull was thought to be responsible.

The Agency complained that movement restrictions introduced to slow the spread of the disease were hampering its own efforts to investigate the incident. In a number of more minor pollution breaches, blood and animal waste had leaked into other waterways, the EA revealed.

At this point up to a million chickens, killed during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 came home to roost in MAFF's Whitehall headquarters. They had been buried in pits too, and the result was the contamination of thousands of wells relied on by the State of North Carolina for much of its water supply. The hurricane probably killed up to three million chickens, pigs and cattle, whose carcasses lay rotting for days before the authorities settled on a policy of burial. A year later, 12,000 groundwater supplies were examined. About 3000 were contaminated, and 600 actually revealed traces of animal faeces.

Elliott Moorhead, one of the US's leading experts on waste disposal was quoted as saying "If you do it wrong now, you will be living with the consequences for the next 15 years".

Also rather worrying for the cynbics among us was the frequency with which the sites chosen for mass burial coincided with ownership by the MoD - airfields, army training ranges, and so on. This did not inspire great confidence that hydrogeological characteristics were foremost in the minds of those taking the decisions. One caller to the Society described this as the "Sellafield Effect".

Confusion also reigned in Wales as Carwyn Jones, rural affairs minister in the Welsh Assembly, announced that burials in a pit above Sennybridge would cease because a planned cull would not go ahead after all. Protesters welcomed the announcement, but said the real reason for the halt was fear that the pit would contaminate local water sources. Meanwhile, in a burial pit built on the Army's Eppynt Range, 15,000 carcasses were buried before the Environmental Agency in Wales found that water in a nearby borehole had become contaminated with ammonia.

Could it be that in its haste to dig itself out of the F&M crisis, the Government might have inadvertently dug itself into another? About one month after this fear began to be voiced in the UK media the reassuring answer came - on page two of The Times.

At Ash Moor, not far from Petrockstow, fifteen 80 metre barrows will eventually contain half a million carcasses on a specially engineered site. An access road leading nowhere else has been constructed and several watercourses diverted. Each cell is lined with bentonite, high density polyethylene and a protective geotextile called "Nailguard". There will be drainage layers and a surrounding anchor trench. The cell fill will be covered with a geogrid (coarse netting). Evolved gases will be flared, and the site will be managed for at least the next 15 years, with leachates (up to 10,000 gallons a day for the first two weeks) pumped out and disposed off-site.

And so, around the edges of a great national calamity, geotechnical engineering glinted at last in the silver lining of publicity. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good (along with the odd molecule of dioxin).

[The Times 4.4.01, p11; Independent 4.4.01, p9; Observer 8.4.01, p2; Guardian 21.4.01, p8; The Times April 24 p3]