Giant pit will hold 500,000 carcasses

April 24, 2001 The Times (London) by Simon de Bruxelles

A VAST grave is being built in the Devon countryside for nearly half a million animals slaughtered to control foot-and-mouth disease.

Fifteen 80-metre-long barrows, each larger and far more elaborate than anything marking the grave of an Iron Age chieftain, will eventually contain the remains of nearly half a million animals.

Flares lit by the gases of decomposition will illuminate the night sky above the tombs and teams of maintenance engineers will be required to service the site for at least a decade. It is death on a scale that even those involved in its construction find staggering.

Work on the site near Meeth, north of Hatherleigh, where the Devon outbreak began, has been slow because a mile-long access road had to be built after residents of nearby villages said that they did not want convoys of lorries laden with dead animals rumbling past their homes.

The need is urgent as nearly 200,000 dead cows, sheep and pigs are littering the Devon countryside, filling the air with the stench of decay and threatening to become a potential public health hazard. Yet it could be another two weeks before the site is ready to accept its first delivery. No one knows how large the pile of dead will be by then or whether the site will need to reach its full capacity.

Yesterday half a dozen excavators were pecking away in unison at the clay subsoil of "cell" No 2, while the first of several layers of lining material were laid on the base of "cell" No 1. When it is completed each cell will contain the remains of 25,000 "sheep units", according to Richard Walker, supervising construction on behalf of the contractors JDM Accord. "It sounds rather clinical but that is how we have worked out capacity," he said. "There are five adult sheep to a cubic metre and seven sheep units to a cow unit."

The site at Ash Moor was the only one of 50 in Devon surveyed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Environment Agency and the Army that met the strict environmental guidelines laid down for the disposal of so many animals. Before work could even begin, water courses had to be diverted, trees cleared and topsoil removed from an area of more than 400 metres by 200 metres. Tens of thousands of tonnes of stone are being brought in by lorry to construct the miles of roadway.

Because of the high water table in Devon and its particular geology, the burial pits at Ash Moor have had to be far more secure than those elsewhere.

When it is completed Ash Moor will be one of the most highly engineered waste disposal sites in Britain. Each cell is lined with layers of material. On top of the clay subsoil will be a sheet of material called bentonite, made from volcanic clay, which is designed to be impervious to leakage. On top of that is a 2mm layer of high-density polyethylene liner, then 9mm of "Nailguard" which resists punctures, then 300mm of drainage material.

Only then will the carcasses be placed in the hole to a depth of two metres. On top will be plastic netting, soil cover, another protective membrane, and finally a layer of topsoil.

Mr Walker said: "Any one of the protective layers would be considered sufficient in an ordinary landfill site but we have used the lot. You could say it is a belt-and-braces approach, with another pair of braces just to be on the safe side. Our principal concern has had to be protection of the environment because we won't get a chance to do it again."

Local residents who have set up an organisation called Stamp (Stop The Ash Moor Pit) do not feel reassured. Jon Pratt, who lives in the village of Petrockstow half a mile from Ash Moor, said: "On a personal level I have very strong reservations about the pit. In essence what they are creating out there is an experiment. They have changed the technology totally in terms of the construction of this pit three times in the last two weeks, which tends to suggest that they don't know what they are doing.

"I have heard reports that when there was a similar but not identical project in Worcestershire, they had major problems with leachate (liquid from decomposing carcasses). They are going to make mistakes and we are going to be the people who will suffer."

None of the animals to be buried at Ash Moor will have been killed because it had been infected with foot-and-mouth. All come from farms "slaughtered out" because they adjoin infected locations.

The methane produced by the carcasses will be burnt, as it is in many landfill sites. The other main gases will be nitrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. The last of these has a rotten-egg smell, detectable in minute amounts, so controlling that could be a challenge. Plans for disposing of liquids known as leachate are less clear. It will be pumped out and disposed of off-site,

The designers of the burial chambers have calculated that at full capacity they would produce about 10,000 gallons of leachate every day for the first two weeks. After that the quantity would fall off significantly.

Once the process of decay has been completed the site may be designated a nature reserve and the barrows left to become overgrown and forgotten. Then it will be for successors to Tony Robinson's archaeological Time Team to inquire what long-forgotten gods demanded the sacrifice of so many animals, and why.

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