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Developing Burnside Lakes would open ‘Pandora’s Box of toxic chemicals’, warn Cambridge campaigners



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Environmental campaigners have warned that digging up contaminated land to build a delivery hub in Cherry Hinton could open a “Pandora’s Box” of dangerous chemicals.

The proposed Burnside Lakes development would see warehouses and commercial buildings erected on a former landfill site, as well as the creation of an urban park, if it gains planning approval.

Residents have already raised concerns about the height of the buildings on the site as well as the increased traffic and regular arrival of HGVs to the proposed last-mile delivery hub.

An artist's impression of the commercial area at Cambridge Lakes. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods
An artist's impression of the commercial area at Cambridge Lakes. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods

Now Cambridge Friends of the Earth has raised the prospect of toxic chemicals from waste dumped there in the 1970s and 1980s being released into the air and groundwater if the earth is disturbed and has called for the plans to be rejected.

Developer Anderson says it would put a “capping layer” over the top of the land which would improve the “environmental quality” of the site.

But Cambridge Friends of the Earth spokesperson, Ian Ralls, told the Cambridge Independent: “If you start disturbing the earth there, it’s a bit of a Pandora’s Box and it would be best to leave it alone.

“Landfill sites were less regulated back then. All the industry that was in Cambridge, including electroplating and electronics companies, probably put their waste in there and it was perfectly acceptable at the time. They just left it and walked away from it.

“If it is undisturbed, that’s bad enough. But if you start messing around with it, it’s going to get very, very ugly. There’s a reason that people haven’t built on its land near the centre of Cambridge. The reason for that is because they know what it is. Now all of a sudden land prices have shot through the roof and somebody has seen an opportunity. The one saving grace is not going to be residential. People are still going to be working there and there and there are still going to be people living next to it.

“Goodness knows what is down there and they are going to drive piles into the ground for the buildings’ foundations because the landfill is not very stable. It’s got stuff decaying and shifting around under the ground, and so they’re going to have to put pilings in, which will provide a route to the surface to whatever is down there.

“It is already contaminating the groundwater but there is a possibility of stuff being released into the air. If you actually start digging and disturbing the landfill, some of the more volatile compounds can be released.”

An artist's impression of the commercial area at Cambridge Lakes, showing the cycle route through the site. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods
An artist's impression of the commercial area at Cambridge Lakes, showing the cycle route through the site. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods

Anderson has commissioned its own report into the contaminants on the site. The report has been submitted to the city council as part of the planning proposals.

It states that on the land called Parcel A there is “significantly elevated contaminant concentrations (which) have been reported in the leachate and groundwater beneath the site”.

It adds: “The contamination identified has potential to impact the local surface water receptors. Elevated concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide have also been recorded at the site. These have potential to pose a risk to the future site users and neighbouring properties.”

And on the piece of land referred to as Parcel B, it says data shows “elevated contaminant concentrations in both the capping layer soils and the waste deposits beneath the site, which are likely to pose a risk to the future site users (whether the site is to be redeveloped for residential or commercial)”.

The report adds: “In addition, significantly elevated contaminant concentration have been shown to be present in the lechate and groundwater beneath Parcel B. As with Parcel A the contamination has potential to impact the local surface water receptors. Significantly elevated ground gas concentrations have also been reported.”

The chemicals mentioned in the report, titled ‘Ground Conditions Appendix 10.4 Gas and Groundwater Monitoring’, include asbestos, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), petroleum hydrocarbons (TP), phenols and 1,2,4 trimethylbenze.

It states that the chemicals pose a “medium to high risk” to “receptors” – meaning people.

The lakes off Burnside in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
The lakes off Burnside in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Friends of the Earth has sent in a planning objection to proposals to “compact” the ground, warning: “We are concerned that such a process may have the effect of literally ‘squeezing’ contaminated liquids and solids in suspension out of the waste layers and create pathways to both the groundwater and surface receptors.”

And the campaigners consider the weight of any buildings would have a similar effect of “squeezing contaminants” out.

The group’s letter concludes: “As even the applicant’s own report points out, [there are] considerable risks to receptors/future site users and neighbouring properties and, given the highly toxic and persistent nature of many of the contaminants found, we consider that this application must be refused on the grounds of public safety.

“In spite of assurances from the developers we fail to see how any development of the land can occur without disturbing the sources of contamination within the landfill, leading to increased releases of potentially toxic contaminants to the air, water and soil.”

An aerial view of Cambridge Lakes. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods
An aerial view of Cambridge Lakes. Picture: Anderson Group/Chetwoods

A spokesperson for Anderson said: “Over 20 years’ worth of data from numerous site investigations and long-term environmental monitoring has been used to inform how this aged former landfill site can be safely repurposed for commercial uses.

“This would be achieved by constructing a substantial engineered capping layer over the site surface to deny the aged waste deposits the opportunity to compromise the local environment or nearby water quality.

“Such a remediation strategy is a widely-used and proven remediation methodology which will positively enhance the environmental quality of the site and its environs.”

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