There is deeply toxic mercury (which can cause brain damage) in Margate’s soil and groundwater and it could take decades before it is removed, the Environment Agency (EA) has warned this autumn.
Replying to a Freedom of Information request last month, the EA said that inorganic (mercuric-chloride), organic (methyl-mercury) and elemental (Hg+) mercury are all still polluting the area around a former chemicals factory.
The mercury is getting into the groundwater, the government agency confirmed. As are many other deeply poisonous chemicals.
Contamination is present in the soils and made ground on the site. The unsaturated zone of the Chalk (which is the drier section of the Chalk aquifer between the ground surface and the groundwater table) is contaminated with mercury and a mixture of solvents used in the manufacture of mercury products and OIT. There are particular hot-spots under the former production area, the former chemical and effluent tanks and beneath drainage soakaways.
Mercury poisoning can lead to neurological damage, severe renal bleeding and many more horrific symptoms; if acute, it can kill you. If chronic, it can cause lasting damage. It is, in short, the last thing you want anywhere near your groundwater.
The mercury pollution at the former Thor Mercury factory is localised—thus far—but the EA warned that it will take decades to remove it, as wider pollution by other chemicals spreading into our groundwater from the same site has to take precedence.
The company to blame, meanwhile, has declined to pursue a process (soil vapor extraction) that would get those other chemicals out much faster, the EA reported on September 25, 2014. That’s despite a successful test four years ago.
A small amount of volatile contamination was removed from a single onsite remediation borehole during a trial of a soil vapour extraction remediation technique. The trial was for a two week period between July and August 2010.
The report from the trial suggested that this would be an effective treatment of the unsaturated zone within the chalk rock beneath the site. The technique would complement the ongoing groundwater treatment remediation works.
The company have not chosen to pursue this as a remediation option at present.
Don’t Thor Chemicals have enough money to do this vital work?
Not so. Whilst the company is now officially dissolved—in name at least—after settling out of court for severe mercury poisoning in South Africa, the company’s money was transferred to a holding company, Tato Holdings Limited (based in Canterbury) that has a net worth of £285 million, with £85 million in cash to hand.
The directors, who bitterly fought legal efforts to bring the company to justice in the UK for its South African pollution, continue to run chemicals company Thor Specialities, which has net assets of £40 million and is registered in Cheshire. (There are no allegations here of wrongdoing by either Tato Holdings Limited, or Thor Specialities…)
Thor could certainly afford to move quicker to clean up their poisonous Margate factory site though, even if the technical problems are challenging. (Thor have asked the EA to allow them to remove the concrete surfacing on the site, but the EA has sensibly said no, until further work has been carried out on the solvent contamination; exposing mercury-laced topsoil to further rainwater doesn’t sounds sensible…)
So far, the following has been removed from 23,431 cubic metres of water at the site:
> 407 kg of benzene (can cause leukemia, lymphoma, permanent brain damage)
>48 kg of toluene (can cause neuronal development damage to children and more
> 64 kg of 1,2,4-trimethyl benzene (can cause nervousness, tension, and bronchitis
> 119 kg of aromasol (possible risk of harm to unborn child, lung damage if inhaled)
> 0.1 kg of total mercury (well, it’s the last thing they’re going to get out…
> Oh, and 61 kg of versatic acid and 1.6 kg of texanol and 8 kg of phenol and…
You get the picture. There is clearly a huge amount more still in the soil, with the potential of further risk to the groundwater, or it wouldn’t take “decades” to clean up.
If elected to serve North Thanet, as a Green Party representative I would come down like a ton of bricks on companies not doing their utmost make sure our soil and our water are free from chemical poisons. Why aren’t TDC and KCC pushing for this site to be cleaned up as a matter of urgency?
Those responsible for this pollution—who had moved operations to South Africa after receiving warnings about Margate—should be making it a priority to clean up this site. Mercury in the soil and entering the groundwater being left for decades more is simply unacceptable.
That is groundwater that feeds our aquifers and it must be removed as fast as humanly possible. The Environment Agency (who should be commended for a fantastically comprehensive response to a detailed question) say “Thor has taken responsibility for the site contamination and has opted to carry out voluntary remediation. They provide regular progress updates to the Environment Agency.”
Today I will be asking how regular those updates are, how much work has been done in the past year and how often the EA itself checks the site and the groundwater. I’ll also be writing to Thor, asking for a time line on the removal and what they are doing to ensure this is sped up.
The full and comprehensive text of the response from the Environment Agency to a Mr Richard Card (no acquaintance)’s detailed questions is here.