Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on March 2nd 2017
1972 was a hugely significant year for the waste industry. It was a year when operators were forced to act far more responsibly in their disposal of hazardous waste. It took an incident that made national headlines to bring about these changes, an incident that CSG helped bring to a safe resolution.
On February 24th 1972, thirty-six drums containing sodium cyanide ash were discovered at a disused brickworks, near a children’s play area in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. ‘KILLER DRUMS DUMPED ON PLAYGROUND’ screamed the headline on the front cover of the Daily Mirror the next day – and for good reason.
Sodium cyanide is described as one of the most rapidly acting of all poisons, with an oral dosage of only 200mg (equivalent to a headache tablet) liable to be fatal. The consequences of this volume of such a dangerous substance being exposed to the surrounding environment were dire.
Thankfully, a local resident notified the police and the authorities contacted Sweetways, a subsidiary of CSG, to remove and process the hazardous cargo. Nigel Watson takes up the story in his 2002 book on CSG, ‘Waste Matters’:
“Sweetways driver, Bill Bailey, was given a police escort for his journey to the site, such was the urgency given to the incident. The drums were rolled into a demountable container, stored safely overnight at the Evesham depot and sent for treatment and safe disposal…in Botley the next day. The whole episode was conducted under the attentive gaze of the BBC, ITV and the national press.”
A mere twenty-four hours after the cyanide was found, the matter was raised in Parliament, as recorded by Hansard:
“The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker): Preliminary investigations suggest that between 3 p.m. on 23rd February and 9 a.m. on 24th February, 36 drums containing sodium cyanide ash were dumped on a site forming part of a disused brick clay workings near Bermuda village, Nuneaton. The drums were found by a local resident and the police were informed. The drums were guarded while police investigations were commenced and arrangements made by the local authority with a firm of waste disposal contractors for the dumped material to be removed to a treatment plant near Southampton.
The waste was loaded on to a covered vehicle by 9 p.m. on 24th February and the vehicle was kept overnight in the firm’s Evesham depot. The vehicle was expected to arrive at Southampton by about 10.30 a.m. today. There it will be examined and the appropriate action taken to treat the substances contained in the barrels.”
One MP reacted to the inclusion of ‘Southampton’ (used as a signifier for CSG’s Botley depot) and was moved to ask if this referred to the port, concerned that the waste would be dumped at sea. The Environment Secretary’s reply, designed to allay that fear, was little short of a ringing endorsement of CSG from the Her Majesty’s Government:
“The reason the material has been sent to Southampton is that there is the best place to treat this kind of matter.”
As the debate continued, Sir Bernard Braine, the newly-knighted member for South East Essex, who would later become Father of the House raised a point that would sow the seeds of change across an entire industry:
“Is my right hon. Friend aware that responsible elements in the waste disposal industry—and they constitute the majority—would welcome the earliest possible introduction of legislation with real teeth in order to ensure that practices of this kind are stopped for all time?”
And so, in the light of an incident that could very easily have become a terrible tragedy, the issue of responsible treatment of hazardous waste was given a high priority by Parliament, resulting, weeks later, in the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act (1972).
As Sir Bernard Braine had astutely recognised, the legislation served to level the playing field between responsible operators in the waste industry and those who chose to cut corners without regard to the consequences. This in turn had the effect of legitimising the industry by removing it of the unscrupulous element that had damaged its reputation. Further regulation also meant that waste would become a growth industry, something which has continued to this day.
It was little more than fate that saw CSG thrust, briefly, into the national gaze to help effectively dispose of the dumped cyanide at Nuneaton in February 1972. In the years that followed, the benefits CSG experienced in an industry that suddenly required professionalism and respectability more were nothing to do with good fortune and everything to do with being determined to act responsibly and correctly at all times. It’s a lesson that’s as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.