Still Waters Run Deep
One of Britain’s biggest power companies plans
to fill a wildlife-rich lake with waste ash. But locals
have other ideas.
The Ecologist, November 2006
As we stand looking out over Thrupp Lake, it begins
to rain. The rain shakes the leaves of the oaks and
the willows, and frays the surface of the water. Canada
geese and swans look unconcerned as the five of us put
up the hoods on our raincoats and huddle under the trees.
It’s a strangely tranquil place. A thirty-acre
lake, bristling with wildlife, surrounded by mature
trees and studded with islands on which waterfowl nest
and gather – you could imagine, standing here,
that there was not another human being for miles. Yet
we are standing in one of the most populated parts of
southeast England, only minutes away from housing estates,
motorways and – ominously – one of the country’s
biggest coal-fired power stations.
With me are four local residents, who know and love
this quiet, unassuming, unspectacular but beautiful
place. They walk their dogs here, come here to think,
to watch wildlife or just catch a breath of air. They
live nearby, and as new housing estates, business parks,
road widening schemes and the vagaries of breakneck
‘development’ hem them in further every
year, Thrupp Lake has become a refuge.
‘There are a lot of people living round here,’
says Jo Cartmell, a wildlife expert who has just finished
scanning the mud of the banks for otter footprints.
‘This is a place you can come for a bit of beauty
and tranquillity, which is so precious these days. For
me, it’s a much-treasured area. I’ve been
here for twenty years now. I couldn’t believe
when I first moved here that a lake of this size, with
all this wildlife, was literally so close to home.’
Jo, Basil, Marjorie and Lynda walk me around Thrupp
Lake as the rain continues, creating a mist of spray
in the trees. Their knowledge and love of this landscape
is clear as they point out long-tailed tits in the branches
and coots scooting across the mudflats. They tell me
of sedge warblers, cetti’s warblers, whitethroats,
otters, water voles, firecrests, herons, bats, dragonflies,
terns, cormorants, carp and orchids, all of which they
have seen in or around the lakes, just minutes from
They tell me about the swans that nested on one of the
islands, and the fox that swam across and ate their
eggs. They tell me about the old ladies who come down
here in their wheelchairs to look out at the view and
watch the birds; about the anglers, the schoolchildren
and the joggers who enjoy it.
Then they take me around the corner and show me the
Fifty yards away from the tranquil beauty of Thrupp
Lake, across the old railway line, is a wide expanse
of dark grey slime, studded with weeds and scrub. The
slime is dangerous and unstable - the industrial equivalent
of quicksand. It is also laced with arsenic, chromium,
boron, cadmium, antinomy, vanadium, barium and copper.
It is surrounded by a high, barbed-wire topped fence,
with KEEP OUT signs spaced along it at intervals.
Four years ago this, too, was a wildlife-rich lake.
Now it is a waste pit, filled with hundreds of thousands
of tons of ash. The ancient, dirty, coal-burning Didcot
power station, which is just visible above the tree
line, killed the lake by the simple process of piping
its waste coal ash straight into it. Nine other lakes
in the area have already met the same fate. Only two
remain, of which Thrupp is by far the biggest. Now,
Didcot wants to fill it, too, with poison ash. But it
is meeting fierce resistance.
The lake is a County Wildlife Site, and sits in the
middle of the Oxfordshire Green Belt. Yet the county
council has recommended that the dumping go ahead. The
RSPB, English Nature and the local wildlife trust have
not objected. Neither has the Environment Agency.
All that stands between the wildlife of Thrupp Lake
and 500,000 of tons of waste ash, in fact, are Jo, Basil,
Marjorie and Lynda: four determined, respectable, middle-aged
middle Englanders who have set up a spirited and widely-supported
campaign group called Save Radley Lakes. And what their
determined local campaign has exposed goes far beyond
their village of Radley, and its nearby power station.
This is about more than just the future of an Oxfordshire
lake. It is about electricity, waste disposal, climate
change, government policy and corporate power. It is
quite a story.
It starts in 1947, when the owner of the land which
is now the Radley Lakes complex began mining it for
gravel. Over the next few decades, gravel extraction
created twelve deep pits, which filled with water and,
over time, became a collection of lakes. As wildlife
began to colonise them they became popular with local
people. Walkers, anglers, birdwatchers, joggers, families,
cyclists and parties of schoolchildren began to frequent
them and they became a popular local landmark.
By the early 1980s, the twelve Radley Lakes had become
so popular and well-used that proposals were discussed
to turn the complex into a public water park and nature
reserve, with separate lakes for boating, angling, windsurfing
and wildlife. The idea was widely supported amongst
local people. But in the intervening period, something
else had happened which would seal the fate of the lakes.
Didcot’s coal-burning power station began operating
in 1970, on a 300-acre site a few miles from Radley.
Quite apart from its contribution to global warming,
coal burning creates a huge amount of localised waste.
At full capacity, Didcot can consume 5 million tonnes
of coal a year. The coal is pulverised into dust and
fed into giant furnaces, which create the heat which
generates electricity. But this process also creates
waste ash, known in the industry as Pulverised Fuel
Ash, or PFA. Didcot can produce 3000 tonnes of PFA in
a single day – up to a million tonnes a year.
And it has to be disposed of somewhere.
Until 1984, Didcot’s PFA was dumped in a nearby
landfill site. But this soon filled up, and other potential
landfills nearby had already been booked for the disposal
of waste from London, fifty miles away. One condition
of the construction of Didcot’s coal plant in
1964 was that PFA could not be disposed of by road,
because of the vast number of lorries that would be
required to take it away. So the power station needed
another nearby site to dump its waste, and its gaze
alighted on the Radley Lakes.
In 1982, before many local people knew what was happening,
Didcot had been granted planning permission to pipe
its PFA into the Radley Lakes, just five miles away.
So nearly a wildlife and water park, they were now to
be a landfill site for industrial waste. But there were
conditions attached. Any lake filled with PFA would
have to be restored by the power station to a natural
state afterwards. And they would need specific approval
for every stage of the operation.
Over the next twenty years, ten of the Radley Lakes
were filled with PFA and fenced off from the public.
Only two remained: Thrupp Lake and its smaller neighbour,
Bullfield Lake. Local people hoped that these, at least,
would be preserved. Then, last year, Didcot’s
new owner, the German-owned electricity firm Npower,
applied for planning permission to fill the last two
lakes with PFA as well.
Standing on the thin spit of land that separates Bullfield
from Thrupp Lake, Jo Cartmell shakes her head. There
is a kind of astonishment in her voice as she looks
out across the water, as if she can’t quite believe
it is happening. Jo has lived here for twenty years.
She has seen the other ten lakes disappear. She is determined
to save at least this one.
‘What amazes me is that the people from Npower
didn’t even come to see the lake!’ she says.
‘They embarked on all these negotiations and they
didn’t even see the place. If they had done, and
if they had even an ounce of nous between them, they
would never have embarked on the plan to fill it.’
Npower, of course, see things rather differently. Their
press officer, Kelly Brown, who says she has been to
Thrupp Lake, is keen to explain to me what a good job
her company does for the environment. She’s also
keen to stress that, in her words, there is ‘absolutely
no alternative’ to disposing of PFA in Thrupp
Lake. Npower don’t call it Thrupp Lake, though.
They call it ‘Lake E’; the latest in a long
line of waste disposal pits, labelled A to P, which
they say were ‘a scar on the landscape’
when first mined for gravel, and are now being restored
by the company.
‘Technically’, says Kelly, sternly, ‘Lake
E is not a public amenity. All these lakes that people
walk around, they’re actually private land. Eighteen
months ago, we applied for permission to fill Lakes
E and F [otherwise known as Thrupp and Bullfield Lakes]
with PFA. There was a public consultation, which we
studied carefully. Then we submitted a new proposal,
to fill only Lake E. We have now guaranteed not to fill
Lake F. And much of the land which is now Lake E –
private land, remember – will be restored ecologically,
and become a public park.’ The way Kelly puts
it, it sounds quite nice. Soothing, even. And she hasn’t
even got to the economics yet.
‘Didcot’s coal burning power station meets
the electricity needs of up to two million people,’
she explains. ‘And of course, it generates a lot
of waste. If we can’t secure a 24 hour, seven
days a week means of disposing of that waste, then there’s
the possibility that power supplies will be disrupted.
We have explored all the options very carefully, and
I can assure you that there is no alternative at all.
We have to use Lake E for PFA.’
So far, so simple. Yet there are other issues lurking
in the background which make the story much more intriguing
Firstly, there’s the issue of PFA itself. Far
from being a useless waste material, it is eminently
re-useable. It is, in fact, in great demand in the construction
industry, where it is used in concrete, road building,
mine grouting, coastal defences and underwater construction.
Didcot power station has recently constructed a plant
to convert its PFA waste for industrial use –
something which they are keen to trumpet. But there
is no legal obligation on them to do so, and less than
half of their PFA is currently reused. The rest goes
into the lakes.
Secondly, as NPower are naturally keen to point out,
the law is against them in at least one respect. For
years, PFA was used for beneficial purposes, without
too much bureaucratic interference. Then along came
something called the European Waste Framework. In a
well-intentioned attempt to protect the environment,
it classified PFA as a ‘waste material’
rather than a ‘by-product’, which meant
that reusing it was suddenly more expensive and bureaucratic.
At the same time, no law exists in Britain – as
it does in many other European countries – demanding
that a large percentage of PFA is re-used or recycled.
From NPower’s point of view, all this adds up
to one conclusion – the cheapest and easiest thing
to do with their waste is, well, to tip it into a lake.
This is not the end of the legal shenanigans either.
In 1982, when the first lake at Radley began to be filled,
locals were assured that PFA was entirely ‘inert’
– not toxic, not polluting, not dangerous. Then
along came another European Directive. This one enforced
a new way of PFA disposal – before tipping the
stuff into a drained lake, the lake needed to be lined
with thick clay, to prevent any leaching of toxins into
the groundwater. Suddenly, PFA was potentially toxic
after all. Suddenly, too, the filling of the lakes became
a much bigger scar on the landscape. Whereas before
the lakes would just be filled up to ground level, they
must now be surrounded by giant clay ‘bunds’
up to four metres high, blocking off any view of what
Basil Crowley, the Chairman of Save Radley Lakes, has
worked hard to get his head around all of this, and
he is dismissive of NPower’s insistence that destroying
Thrupp Lake is the only option available.
‘I’ll tell you what this is really about’,
he says. ‘The reason Npower are going after the
lake so determinedly, and resisting alternatives, is
that they want to get their money’s worth. They
paid £3.2 million for Thrupp Lake, before they’d
even been given full permission to dispose of PFA in
it.’ Plus, he says, the power station is coming
to the end of its life. In 2015, yet another European
Directive comes into play, which will require Didcot’s
coal plant either to clean up its act, or to close.
NPower have decided to close it. ‘Since it’s
got no long-term future, it’s not worth their
while doing anything else’, snorts Basil.
Finally, Save Radley Lakes simply do not believe NPower’s
insistence that Thrupp Lake will be enough to suit their
needs. According to their calculations, Thrupp is not
big enough to take all of Didcot’s PFA waste for
the next nine years. They say it will only take about
twenty percent of it before it is full and they need
to look somewhere else. They also point out, correctly,
that on the site of Didcot power station itself sits
another gravel pit. Much newer than Thrupp, and with
virtually no wildlife value, it would be a perfect place
to dump the PFA. It even has planning permission for
dumping. But it has been bought by a company which plans
to use it for landfill from London, fifty miles away
– while the waste PFA from a hundred yards away
is pumped, instead, into Thrupp Lake.
‘It makes no sense at all, when you put it all
together’, says Basil. ‘The reality is that
for NPower this is the cheap and easy option, and no-one
will stop them.’
And it seems that no-one will. English Nature couldn’t
designate the site an SSSI because they couldn’t
find anything rare enough living on it. The local wildlife
trust has remained mute. The Environment Agency is happy
that no laws are being broken. And NPower are keen to
play down the wildlife value of the site.
‘Save Radley Lakes produced a report recently
which was full of inaccuracies about the lake’s
wildlife’, insists Kelly Brown. ‘They say
there are water voles there. They say there are otters.
Well, we employed a team of specialist ecologists, who
produced a very detailed report. There are no otters
or water voles. It’s not the right environment
for them. And when we have restored the site, its ecology
will be richer than it is now. Our restoration work
is second to none.’
Tell that to Jo Cartmell, who has seen otter tracks,
or to the other locals who have seen and photographed
otters there. Tell it to the Environment Agency, come
to that, who verified one of the sightings. Tell it
to Basil, who employed a qualified environmental surveyor
of his own, who came back with evidence of water voles,
or to Jo who has studied them for years. Tell it to
the Kingfishers and bats who will have nowhere to nest
once the filling begins.
There is also the question of what ‘restoration’
actually means. Before the gravel pits were dug here
in the 1950s, it was farmland. Originally, Didcot promised
to restore it to agriculture. But these days, agricultural
land is much less in demand. Plus, the intervening five
decades have seen the scrubby gravel pits develop into
mature lakes. Kelly Brown sends me a lovely picture
of what their ‘restoration’ will look like.
It’s full of detail about the lagoon they will
dig for the water birds, the native trees they will
plant around the edges, the special burrowing sites
they’ll create for kingfishers to nest in, the
small pond to be created especially for amphibians.
In other words, NPower are not restoring the original
farmland – they’re creating a smaller, cheaper,
less wild version of the existing lake; one dug out
of ash, rather than soil. It’s not terribly reassuring.
Ultimately, though, Thrupp Lake has a problem –
a problem which may doom it. It is not ‘special’
enough. Take the otters, for instance. ‘Otters
have been seen here,’ explains Jo, ‘but
we can’t prove that they’ve bred here. If
we could, we could stop the destruction, because otter
breeding habitats are protected. But otters just being
here doesn’t count, we’re told. It’s
a ridiculous bureaucratic way to look at it. We know
the place is suitable for otters. We know otters have
been seen here. We know otters have been seen on the
Thames, five miles away, well within their range, which
is twenty miles for a male otter and ten miles for a
female. Even if they’re not breeding here now,
it’s a perfect breeding site for them. But that
apparently doesn’t count.’
A similar rule applies to the kingfishers. Yes, there
are kingfishers at Thrupp Lake, and kingfishers are
protected – but their habitat isn’t. Yes,
it is rich in wildlife – but not rich enough,
and not in the ‘right’ sort of wildlife
to become a protected nature reserve. To the local people,
Thrupp Lake is a special place. To the conservation
bureaucracy, it is apparently not special enough. And
to NPower, it’s not even Thrupp Lake – it
is Lake E; a location, not a place. A utility, not a
landscape. An ideal site for the disposal of poisonous
waste that nobody wants, and nobody is supposed to see.
NPower’s application to fill Thrupp Lake is currently
with Ruth Kelly, the secretary of state for local government,
who can either reject it, accept it or deliberate on
it for longer. NPower are confident she will accept
it. If she does, Save Radley Lakes say they will take
it to the High Court. In an ideal world, they say, they
would like both remaining lakes to be locally-owned
and run resources. ‘NPower could have a great
big PR coup if they said ‘“we’ve decided
to give it to the community instead of dumping in it”’,
says Marjorie. ‘It would repay so handsomely for
such a small amount of money.’
Meanwhile, though, the fight goes on. And as it does
so, questions hang in the air. Who is to blame for this
situation? NPower, for lazily dumping waste it could
reuse or recycle? The EU, for making it harder for them
to do anything else? Oxfordshire County Council, for
rolling over before a big, powerful company which provides
local employment? The government, for failing to insist
that PFA is recycled rather than dumped? Or you and
me, for using the electricity that Didcot and power
stations like it produce? How would you feel if the
lights went out, and who would you blame then?
Back on the shore of Thrupp Lake, what seems clear to
me is that to fill this place with waste ash would be
a crime. ‘What amazes me’, says Jo, ‘is
that on the one hand, we’re all being behoven
by the government to reuse and recycle more, and rightly
so. On the other hand, a giant corporation are allowed
to do this, which is fly dumping on a huge scale. There’s
no joined up thinking at all. When you think about it,
none of it actually makes sense.’
Save Radley Lakes website: http://www.saveradleylakes.org.uk/