Devon cannot dispose of rotting
By Richard Savill and David Graves
Monday 23 April 2001
THE Ministry of Agriculture admitted last night that it faced a "very serious problem" over the disposal of tens of thousands of rotting carcasses of animals slaughtered in the foot and mouth epidemic in Devon.
As Government ministers sought to reassure the public that burning was not causing major pollution, opponents of a proposed mass burial site for 400,000 animals in the north of the county were due to meet lawyers today to fight the plans. People living near the site at Ash Moor, near Meeth, claim that it could contaminate surrounding land for years.
It was clear that the Government was faced with mounting public health problems over the disposal of such large numbers of carcasses around the country. In Cumbria, a pyre to burn slaughtered animals was dismantled yesterday at Langrigg amid fears that smoke from burning carcasses was poisonous. North Cumbria Health Authority asked the Ministry of Agriculture to reconsider starting a number of pyres until the Department of Health confirmed that the risk to local health was minimal.
More than 180,000 dead animals are lying in fields and farmyards in Devon after being slaughtered, and with the backlog increasing by 10,000 carcasses a day, farmers' leaders spoke of a growing health risk. The ministry admitted that a successful legal challenge to the burial site at Ash Moor would leave the Government's plans for disposal in "deep trouble". A pyre for nearly 10,000 animals was due to be lit near the town of Holsworthy last night, but the figure represented only a fraction of the backlog.
The National Farmers' Union said it believed there should be on-farm burial of carcasses, but the Environment Agency said the geography of the county severely limited the number of suitable sites. A Maff spokesman said the ministry was attempting to discover if temporary storage could be found for some of the rotting carcasses, many of which have been on farmers' land for two weeks.
An NFU spokesman blamed the build-up of carcasses on the Environment Agency, which was refusing permission for most on-farm burials. He said: "The whole system is being mummified by red tape from the Environment Agency.
"What is the lesser of two evils: allowing small, on-farm burials, which was the preferred option after the outbreak in the Sixties, or allowing the carcasses to rot where they lie with all the environmental and health risks that involves?"
Joe Skinner, of Stop The Ash Moor Pit, an organisation formed to prevent the planned mass burial, said: "Our chief concern is human health. There are a lot of children in the area and two primary schools nearby." He said the group was concerned that nitrogen would leak into local rivers and pollution would escape from the pit into the local water table, affecting bore holes and wells in the area.
A report yesterday claimed that pyres used for incineration of carcasses were emitting high levels of cancer-causing dioxins. But Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, insisted that public health considerations were "uppermost" in the minds of those dealing with the disposal of carcasses.
A study by the National Environmental Technology Centre found that, in the first six weeks of the epidemic, the burning of 500,000 animals had released 63 grams of dioxins into the atmosphere. This increased the total annual emissions of the chemicals by 18 per cent.
However, Mr Hoon claimed that reports from another environmental agency found the pollution was "the equivalent of two Bonfire Nights". Environment Agency officials are considering banning the use of diesel on pyres amid the mounting public health concerns.
A fourth case of foot and mouth was confirmed in Northern Ireland over the weekend. With nine more cases across the rest of the country, the national total of cases rose to 1,439.
One of the latest cases was on a farm at Catterick, North Yorks, half a mile from the home of William Hague, the Tory leader, who described the confirmation as "heartbreaking" news.
A farmer has been found hanged in his barn days after some of his cattle were slaughtered. Friends said Glyn Lewis, 59, was also upset because restrictions on animal movements had curtailed his livestock haulage business. His body was found on Saturday at his sheep and cattle farm at Llanfyllin, near Welshpool, Powys.