Victory for children of toxic town: Families win ten-year battle over clean-up of steelworks
Children born with birth defects after their mothers were exposed to toxic waste have won a legal battle of more than ten years to hold their council responsible.
In a landmark ruling yesterday, a judge found that the authority had breached its duty of care by failing to prevent toxic dust escaping the clean-up of a former steelworks.
The 16 youngsters and their families can now pursue compensation payouts that could total £8million.
A group of 18 young people yesterday won a landmark legal battle after being exposed to toxic chemicals while in the womb
Curtis Thorpe was born with a deformed hand
The High Court heard that the mothers gave birth to children with deformed hands and feet after being exposed to an 'atmospheric soup of toxic materials' hanging over Corby, Northamptonshire.
The victims, aged 12 to 22, were all conceived during the reclamation of the town's former British Steel plant between 1985 and 1999. They were born with missing fingers or webbed feet.
The court heard that during work to ready the 680-acre site for regeneration, rates of birth deformity in Corby were more than three times those in the surrounding area.
By the late 1990s researchers had begun to link the number and location of abnormal births and the clean-up operation, and a long and difficult campaign began to hold the council to account.
In February the case finally reached the High Court, which heard how open-backed lorries transported 'wet waste' containing cancer-causing dioxins, and heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and chromium, to sealed containers at a quarry north of the town.
The families' lawyer compared driving behind one of these to travelling behind a gritter spreading its load - but without being aware you were inhaling the minute particles.
It is believed the particles blew into kitchens, fell on food that the pregnant women ate and were passed through the bloodstream to the unborn children.
Until the plant closed in 1980, British Steel had put toxic materials into holes in the ground. The material only became dangerous when it was moved.
Connor McIntyre, 12, and his mother Susan are also seeking damages
Mr Justice Akenhead agreed, saying that while the parents had been 'wholly honest', the council's motive was to develop and sell the land quickly without thought for the consequences of those nearby.
He found the council had been 'extensively negligent in its control and management of the sites', and 'did not really appreciate the enormity, ramifications and difficulty' of its task in moving the material.
The judge concluded that contaminated mud and dust deposited over public areas could 'realistically have caused' the birth defects.
He found the council guilty of a public nuisance and in breach of their duty of care under the Environmental Protection Act.
Corby Borough Council maintained yesterday that it was not responsible for the defects, but said it would now consider its position.
If it continues to deny responsibility, each child will have to win compensation on case-by-case basis by proving that his or her deformity was directly caused by the toxins.
Yesterday's case had been fought as a class action on behalf of 18 children-conceived during the steelworks redevelopment.
However, the judge barred two of the children from seeking compensation because they had been conceived after August 1997 when no dangerous toxins were released.
Outside court, the families' solicitor Des Collins said the case was the first time a court has linked birth defects to toxic material.
Affected children: From left, Anita Jane Nathwani and daughter Kerri, Lorraine Murphy and son Jake, Sarah Pearson and son Lewis, Nicola Padilla and son Anthony, Margaret Mahon and son Samuel, Susan Mcintyre and son Connor, Audrey Barfield and son Dylan South, Nicola Scott and son Jordan
When the morning-sickness treatment Thalidomide was found to have caused limb abnormalities in the 1960s and 1970s, the drug company settled before reaching trial.
Mr Collins said: 'Not only did Corby cause these birth defects but by refusing to accept responsibility they have made these children suffer in a way which was totally unnecessary.
'It is appalling that they still refuse to accept the position they're in.'
Mr Wilby QC said he hoped the children would eventually receive up to £500,000 each - leaving Corby facing a bill of up to £8million.
He said the least disabled children would still be entitled to at least £100,000, with some awards 'considerably larger'.
Sources said another 60 families could now come forward to say their children had been affected.
Corby's chief executive Chris Mallender said: 'We are obviously very disappointed and very surprised at the outcome of this trial.
'Our position has always been that there was no link between the reclamation work that was carried out in Corby in past decades and these children's birth defects.'
Long-buried poisons were unleashed
Grim: The huge plant at Corby
- 1934 - Corby Steel Works, Northamptonshire, opens. The 680-acre
site is one of the largest such site in western Europe.
- 1980 - The steelworks close with the loss of 10,000 jobs. A
major clean-up operation of demolition, excavation and redevelopment
- 1985 - Toxic material that had been buried underground when the works were in operation is moved with dangerous results. The 'wet waste' is transported in open-backed lorries to sealed containers at a quarry north of Corby.
- Toxic dust escapes into the atmosphere and is ingested by pregnant women. Some children conceived in the next 14 years are born with missing fingers or webbed feet.
- 1996 - Mothers of two of the victims meet by chance in a Leeds hospital while their sons have corrective surgery for similar deformities.
- A campaign to prove the abnormalities are not just a coincidence
- 2000 - A study by Kettering Health Authority finds a statistically significant cluster of limb deformities in children born to mothers from Corby between 1989 and 1998.
- Birth-defect rates are more than three times those in surrounding area. The two families are soon joined by 16 others.
- July 2009 - Families of the 16 children win their battle to hold the council liable for their abnormalities, after a court case lasting nearly six months. They could now receive up to £8million in compensation.
A young life blighted by playground taunts
Still having to endure taunts: Simone Atkinson at 20
Simone Atkinson has suffered abuse and name-calling throughout her life after being born with a finger missing from each hand.
The 20-year-old said being described as a 'four-fingered freak had been an almost daily occurrence' as she grew up.
Even as an adult the insults have not gone away. Just days before the start of the High Court action in February an ex-boyfriend called her a Kit Kat --in reference to the chocolate bar with four fingers.
Simone who studies English literature at Northampton University, suffers swollen and painful hands.
She can cope with most tasks but has trouble with 'fiddly things' such as shirt buttons.
Whenever possible she hides her hands by wearing long sleeves and folding her arms.
Doctors carried out one operation on her fingers when she was little, but said she would need another to straighten them properly.
She declined after learning there was a chance this could leave her unable to use them at all.
Her mother Lisa, who is unemployed and still lives in Corby, believes she came into contact with the toxic waste as it was being driven out of the steelworks site.
She worked as a security guard in a car park of a company across the road.
'I remember seeing the dust and the dirt all over the roads as it fell off the lorries', she said. 'But we had no idea what they were doing or what they were transporting at the time.'
Simone aged 16 months. Doctors carried out one operation on her fingers when she was little, but said she would need another to straighten them properly
Simone was her first child, but the heartache caused by her deformity left her too scared to have any more.
She said she was delighted with yesterday's verdict, but angry at the council's 'cavalier' clearance of the steelworks, and its continuing failure to admit responsibility.
Born with a fingerless hand
Connor McIntyre was born without any fingers on his left hand
Connor McIntyre was born without any fingers on his left hand.
Since then the 12-year-old has had to have six major operations, during two of which he suffered life-threatening complications.
When his mother Susan, became pregnant with him, the family was living in a house built on Corby's former steelworks site.
Experts believe the toxic waste had seeped into the land, which was then disrupted when the houses were put up.
Other possible explanations for his deformity are the fact his father Peter Ford worked in a factory adjacent to the site, and his mother's visits to the regular Sunday market that was staged at the former British Steel plant.
Miss McIntyre says Connor's father could not handle his son's condition and walked out when he was eight months old, convinced his partner was somehow to blame for what had happened.
She said Mr Ford has seen little of Connor, or their 15-year-old son Daniel, since. Miss McIntyre, who now lives elsewhere in the town, said Connor had 'always been on medication' to treat pains in his hand and she had suffered a breakdown after convincing herself she was to blame.
She said: 'Connor had suffered bullying at school and he's had to put up with name-calling but he gets on with it as best he can.
'When Connor was younger he used to show everybody his hand but now he gets bullied and has started hiding it away in his sleeve or pocket.'
Miss McIntyre said the first she knew of the toxic-waste link was when a journalist contacted her about it 12 years ago.
She said: 'Connor was around a year old and I was still blaming myself for what had happened to him, so it was comforting to know we were not alone.
'All these years since we have been fighting for justice, and now it has finally been done.
'I'm delighted, but the battle is not won yet. We've still got to win compensation for Connor and the other victims.'
Girl left out by judges
'I try not to think about the bullies': India Harrison was deemed too young to be included in the ruling
India Harrison has endured years of bullying because she was born with fingers missing from her left hand.
The nine-year-old has been forced to move schools because of the cruelty of bullies. She has also been in constant pain since she was born with the defect.
But yesterday she and another youngster were told they were too young to be included in the landmark court ruling.
Mr Justice Akenhead barred them from seeking compensation on the grounds that the clean-up of the former steelworks had supposedly finished before she was conceived, and therefore her defect could not have been the result of the release of toxic dust.
Her mother Johann, 37, said: 'I believe India was exposed to the same problems as the other children and she has been born with the same defects.
'How can they draw the line between her and the others?
'She has suffered more than any child should suffer. For her hopes to be dashed like this seems so unfair.'
Mrs Harrison added: 'She is in constant pain and that doesn't stop just because of a court ruling.'
India said: 'I still have to have more surgery. I try not to think about the bullies.
'I don't think it's very fair to say that I'm too young.'
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