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Water supplies could be contaminated

February 27, 2002 The Guardian (London) by Peter Hetherington
Water supplies in several parts of Britain could be contaminated from hundreds of thousands of animals buried and burned during last year's foot and mouth epidemic, government advisers warn today.

In an assessment of the continuing fall-out from the crisis, which probably led to the slaughter of 10m sheep and cattle, the environment agency said it could not rule out long term impact on groundwater from the burial of carcasses and from pyre ash. Detailed monitoring of supplies in Cumbria, Northumberland, and parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Wales and the west country would be needed over a considerable period because of the "potentially dangerous" consequences from burying animals in sensitive areas.

Already contractors working for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have dug up at least 160 sites where livestock was dumped and removed ash and carcasses to landfill quarries in Buckinghamshire and west Cumbria at a cost of pounds 30m. But 10 other sites have yet to be tackled. Today the agency warns in a report that the impact on groundwater from the burial of carcasses and from pyre ash "could take time to materialise".

After an extensive risk assessment, it said that while no serious consequences had so far been detected, sites where large numbers of carcasses or ash were buried would nevertheless need careful attention.

Sir John Harman, the agency chairman, said: "Overall, the immediate impact of the foot and mouth outbreak appears to have been limited, but we are left with a legacy of mass burial sites that will require management and monitoring well into the future."

Trying to put the scale of the problem into perspective, the agency said while many of the animals destroyed last year went to rendering plants, 61,000 tonnes of carcasses were dumped at four mass burial sites, while more were destroyed on 950 pyre sites.

It recorded over 200 water pollution incidents, with three classified as serious.

An agency spokesman said the risk from contaminated groundwater could be "potentially dangerous".

Geoff Bateman, who leads its foot and mouth task group, said mass burial sites - at Great Orton in Cumbria, Tow Law and Widdrington in the north-east, Worcester and mid-Wales - would need to be carefully monitored over at least a 10 year period. Bore holes would be drilled near aquifers to ensure that water supplies were safe.

While Defra has officially played down fears that some of the buried cattle over 30- months-old may have been susceptible to BSE, it has privately raised concerns.

In a letter to one Northumberland farmer it said it had asked the environment agency for a risk assessment "on the chance that cattle with BSE could have been buried on (a particular) site".

It then adds: "Using the assessment you gave . . . on the source of the animals the veterinary assessment was such that it would be better to remove the ash."

The letter also raised the possibility of "toxic material leaking from the site and entering ground water".

It said this was not an issue of the foot and mouth virus "but the possible other contaminations that may be in the ash".

The scale of the operation became apparent yesterday on the Belsay estate in Northumberland, where the remains of almost 1,000 cattle were buried from six farms.

The manager, Sue Bolam, said Defra contractors began work to remove animals from a long pit two weeks' ago and she expected the exercise to last four months, with lorry convoys leaving the site daily. "I am still very angry and I have not had a satisfactory explanation of what is going on," she said.

They had been told that if ash was not removed the land would be branded contaminated. "They first said there was a very faint risk of BSE, but now they are talking of contamination."

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