Scientists to probe landfill exposed by coastal erosion

20 October 2008 by Tom Marshall

The effects of erosion on Britain's coast are combining with its man-made heritage to create a potentially toxic problem.

Coastal erosion at Lyme Regis

This October scientists will set up stations to monitor a disused landfill site that's been exposed to the elements since a storm in May. The storm washed away enough of the cliffs near Lyme Regis to cause a major landslip that in turn unearthed the old landfill.

Rubbish like old household waste and fridges is now strewn over the cliff face and beach below, which lie on Britain's Jurassic Coast - a World Heritage site.

It's not certain exactly what is buried in the landfill, which closed in the 1970s and was unlicensed - or, indeed, how much of it is still hidden there. Further landslides are a strong possibility, and the wet summer has meant erosion has continued since the initial event.

Landslip at Lyme Regis.

Rubbish at the bottom of the landslip

Researchers fear that contaminants could leak into the sea nearby, with potential effects on local ecosystems and shellfish.

Professor Tom Hutchinson, head of science in environment and health at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, has received a NERC urgency grant to survey the site and assess its potential risks. His team is collaborating with colleagues at the Marine Biological Association, also part of the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership.

He got the idea after moving to PML following several years working with the private sector. There he'd seen several examples around the world of old contamination suddenly becoming a concern after lying dormant for years.

He started thinking about the issue earlier this year while trying to imagine the kinds of environmental problem Britain might confront in years to come in the context of living with environmental and climate change.

Nobody ever thought that coastal landfill waste would end up falling into the sea

"We don't yet have a clear picture of how many landfills are near the coast," he says. "But it struck me that given our coastal cities and our industrial history, with the increased risk of coastal erosion due to climate change, it was only a matter of time until some contaminated waste could find its way back into the marine environment." His concerns were confirmed unexpectedly soon when storms struck the West Dorset coast earlier this year.

Rubbish on the beach.

Rubbish ends up on the beach after the landslip

The team will set up monitoring stations on affected areas of the shoreline, and will test for pollutants including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead; organochlorine pesticides; and other chemicals which may disrupt the hormones of animals with which they come into contact. If these contaminants are seeping out of the landfill sites, they could make their way into the marine food chain and perhaps end up being consumed by people.

"Perhaps nobody ever thought that coastal landfill waste would end up falling into the sea," Hutchinson adds, noting that coastal erosion could turn into a far bigger problem than previously anticipated.

"It's sensible to look ahead and gather knowledge necessary to understand how much of a problem this might to be," he adds. "It's very possible that we won't detect anything unusual at all. But if we do find elevated levels of pollutants, that information will be very useful to the local fishermen and to the public, as well as to the Environment Agency."

It will also help local government plan how to deal with the situation. Cleaning up contaminated landfill sites will often not be practicable; the only solution may be to keep people away.

Hutchinson plans to start measurements at the end of October, and for the work to carry on into November. The Plymouth scientists are also working with the Environment Agency and the West Dorset District Council on the research.