Advantage West Midlands under fire over toxic Walsall site

By George Makin.

A public agency refused to reveal levels of pollution on one of the most contaminated sites in Europe – fearing it might halt plans for opencast coal mining.

The attempt to hide the facts from local people was revealed as the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered Advantage West Midlands, to release environmental data on the 35 acre James Bridge Copper Foundry in Walsall.

The order came after the quango originally refused a Freedom of Information request on the extent and level of poisons trapped in some 244 mine shafts which riddle the site.

The land was bought by AWM in 2007 and is close to local residents’ homes, a secondary school and to junction 10 of the M6 motorway

Residents have expressed concerns about health risks and are calling for public consultation on its future use.

The Commission rejected claims by AWM that releasing the information could lead to ‘negative’ press coverage and opposition to a proposal by Parkhill Estates Ltd to mine the site.

The private firm is seeking to buy the land in an £18 million partnership with Walsall Council to reclaim and redevelop it as part of the Black Country Enterprise Zone.

Bill Ellens, a local health campaigner and environmentalist, welcomed the ICO’s decision saying there is an attempt to cover up the truth.

“We need more openness and transparency about this. The fact is people have been told to keep quiet about the proposals for coal mining, while at the same time local residents who have real fears and concerns  about the site are being told nothing.

I’m told the coal is high quality but people, even local councillors, have been warned to say nothing.”

In arguments to the Commissioner, AWM argued the data was commercially confidential and releasing it might cause opposition to Parkhill Estates’ plans leading it to pull out of the deal.

But the commission said the AWM had not shown any evidence to support its claims and ordered it to release the data in 35 days.

The agency must now publish details on levels of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury left over from copper refining when the foundry closed 12 years ago

During the ICO’s investigation the land was transferred to another public body, the Home and Communities Agency.  AWM can apply to a tribunal to overturn the commission’s decision.

Ray Flynn, a special project manager, for the agency said it was still considering its position:  “We have received the letter from the ICO but haven’t had time to go through it yet,” he explained.

Meanwhile Walsall Council has announced that planning permission will be not required for the site, avoiding the need to consult with local people.

Parkhill Estates said no one was available for comment.

You read the Information Commissioner’s Office  decision here
View PDF of Decision Notice FER0395418