Environmental case wins

This page details all our recent environmental case wins.


Aberfan Flood (Merthyr Tydfil)

In the aftermath of the Disaster at Aberfan in 1966, the National Coal Board and the local Council were put under severe pressure to remove all coal tips from the vicinity of the village. This included two tips near the River Taff, close to some playing fields.

These tips were removed and spread over the fields in the early 1970’s raising the height of the fields by up to 20 feet.  Prior to this work the fields were frequently flooded when the Taff burst its banks.  After the removal of the tips, any water escaping the Taff was forced around the fields and through an adjacent housing estate.  These houses had not been prone to flooding until the tips were spread on the fields.

Particularly severe flooding occurred in 1979 and again in 1998, when substantial damage was caused to the houses and the residents were lucky to escape injury.  The total damage caused exceeded £1 million.

Local residents approached Hugh James to take action against the Coal Authority and the local council, to claim damages and seek assurances the flooding would not be repeated.

Leading and nationally recognised experts were involved proceedings were issued against both defendants.  The claim was funded in part by Public Funding (formerly Legal Aid) and in part by twelve different insurers who insured local residents.

The case ultimately proceeded to the Court of Appeal and is now the leading authority in this area of the law.

Brynlliw Burning Coal Tip (Swansea)

In October 1998 residents living in the village of Grovesend near Swansea contacted Hugh James for help. They lived near an old coal spoil tip that had caught fire in 1996 causing choking sulphurous fumes that made their lives a misery and caused some residents to seek medical advice. The fire burnt for over 3 years and smoke caused the nearby M4 motorway to be closed on 9 occasions.

The tip was left over from the old Brynlliw Colliery, which closed in 1982 and had not been operational since 1972. In 1987, the National Coal Board undertook a remediation scheme at the colliery, re-shaping and partially landscaping the tip. In 1995 it was sold to a group of West Glamorgan Commoners for £1.

The Coal Authority became responsible for former coal industry property under the Coal Industry Act 1994 but denied liability for the fire.

The Chairman of the residents committee had however put together a dossier of information on the tip including evidence from former British Coal employees that the tip had a history of self-heatings leading to spontaneous combustion. Hugh James advised the residents to pursue a case against the Coal Authority on the basis that it was responsible for the creation of a foreseeable risk of nuisance.

The fire was eventually put out and made safe by Swansea City Council with the benefit of a grant of £1.2 million following which the residents offered to settle their claims out of court. The offer was rejected and proceedings were issued. The case was bitterly contested by the Coal Authority who refused to entertain any suggestion of an out of Court settlement.

The Coal Authority argued that the fires were caused by the acts of third parties who it could not take responsibility for. They also argued that it was not foreseeable that the tip would ignite as a result of spontaneous combustion.

Following a 2-week trial at the High Court in Swansea the Honourable Mr Justice Pitchford held The Coal Authority liable. The Judge accepted the evidence of the former British Coal employees who said that the tip was liable to self-heating. The Judge found that on all the evidence the tip fire started as a result of spontaneous combustion and that this was a foreseeable risk that British Coal failed to take sufficient steps to prevent. The Judge awarded each household £3,500 plus interest and subsequently awarded penalty interest and costs against the Coal Authority as they had failed to accept a settlement offer put forward by the Claimants.

Argument at trial focused on whether the tip presented a foreseeable risk of spontaneous combustion with both sides calling extensive expert evidence. One of the key issues for the experts was that fact that the tip-contained a mixture of dry steam and anthracite coal, which are both coals of low volatile rank. Both sets of experts agreed that theoretically the coals in this tip were unlikely to spontaneously combust. The Judge, however, accepted that there was enough evidence to displace the theory and found that, in the absence of evidence of third parties lighting fires; the most likely cause was spontaneous combustion. The Judge relied primarily on the evidence of Dr Richards, Associate Principal Mining Engineer with Steffen Robertson Kirsten UK Ltd of Cardiff. Dr Richards based his views on causation on the evidence of heatings at the tip, and self-heatings in coal stocks at Brynlliw. He also considered evidence of spontaneous combustion underground at Brynlliw as well as incidents of other tip fires at nearby collieries mining the same seams as Brnylliw.

South Wales is littered with more than 300 disused coal tips left over from the Coal Industry and the Judgement has wide ranging implications.

The tip in this case was largely constructed before the Aberfan disaster of 1966.  New rules regarding tip construction were introduced as a result of this disaster. However the witnesses called to give evidence for the Authority argued that the new guidelines were not applied retrospectively to old tips.

The case discredits the Coal Authority’s belief that coal tips in South Wales generally don’t catch fire spontaneously and proved that the Coal Authority didn’t do enough to prevent a foreseeable risk.

The Judge found that the Coal Authority’s use of land was unreasonable exposing nearby residents to the risk of spontaneous combustion. This combination of circumstances meant that the Coal Authority remained liable even though they no longer owned the tip.

The Coal Authority sought permission to appeal but the Court of Appeal Judges refused this.

The case was funded under a Conditional Fee Agreement (‘no win, no fee’).

Nantygwyddon Landfill site (Rhondda)

The Nantygwyddon Landfill Site was opened in 1988 situated on the Gelli Mountain in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales.

By 1996 residents living in the communities surrounding the site were expressing grave concerns about the way in which the landfill site was being run complaining of unpleasant odours, noise, litter and fly infestation. Residents were also worried that toxic fumes from the site were affecting their health.

The landfill site caused a persistent nuisance to people living in the vicinity. This lead to fears about the public health consequences of the foul odours from the landfill gas know to have a high hydrogen sulphide content and other trace elements known to be toxic.  An apparent cluster of congenital abnormalities, respiratory problems and skin conditions exacerbated fears.

Hugh James became involved in 1997 and helped the residents launch a group action against the operators of the landfill site, seeking compensation and an injunction to close the site.

Proceedings were issued and a Group Litigation Order was granted to help co-ordinate over 200 individual claims. We assembled a specialist team of lawyers, scientists and environmental health experts to help fight the case.

Hugh James was successful in securing support funding from the Legal Services Commission (formerly the Legal Aid Board) and also handled cases on a ‘no win, no fee basis’.

The litigation ran alongside a formal investigation by the National Assembly for Wales. Hugh James helped put forward the residents’ arguments and attend public hearings. The investigation resulted in the closure of the site and the implementation of a landfill gas management system, strategic monitoring and a specific study into health issues. Following the investigation the group action case was successfully settled as a result of an out of court mediation in October 2003.

Hugh James continues to fight for many communities around the country who are blighted by landfill sites.

Newton Longville Landfill site (Milton Keynes / Bletchley)

The Newton Longville landfill site is situated near Bletchley in Buckinghamshire and has been in operation since 1967.

During the period between August 1999 and September 2001 a large number of complaints were received by the Local Authority regarding odours from individuals living in the surrounding communities. Many residents reported symptoms of ill health including nausea upset stomachs, vomiting, sore eyes throat and headaches all associated with odour emissions. In some cases claimants and their families also reported more serious symptoms such as asthma.

In May 2002 Hugh James were invited by members of the local action group PALS (‘People Against Landfill Sites’) to act for residents in a legal action against the operators of the site Shanks Waste Solutions Limited. PALS wanted to ensure that there was never a repeat of the problems they had experienced and wanted the company to pay compensation for the suffering of residents.

Our team investigated the claim and obtained disclosure of key documents from the regulatory Authorities. We also consulted with Environmental and Toxicological experts and brought in a specialist barrister.

Investigations found that many of the complaints were associated with emission of hydrogen sulphide fumes from the site caused by the tipping and subsequent bio-degradation of waste containing calcium sulphate

Evidence was obtained from an Environmental consultant, which included modelling of the overall odour impact from the site combining separate contours relating to severity, frequency and duration of nuisance taking into account site monitoring data topography and meteorological data. Hugh James also instructed a surveyor to provide evidence on the impact on property and rental values.

Proceedings were issued in the High Court’s Technology Construction Court List due to the complex nature of the case. We were appointed by the High Court to act as lead Solicitors and Mr Justice Mrs Forbes ordered that all claims should be registered with Hugh James by the 30th   of September 2003.

A total of over 420 households brought claims within the group litigation which have now been concluded.



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