Hunchback fish no longer get their batter coating at the Tangier Street fish and chip shop. The fruits of the Irish Sea, which crashes furiously on to Whitehaven’s beaches, no longer find their way into the hot and vinegar-soaked newspaper wrapping at the fish bar across the road from the windswept harbour of the Cumbrian port.
‘Are you from Greenpeace?’ the woman at the counter demands, after I ask why she is selling fish from Denmark. I tell her that I am not from Greenpeace, and ask why the fishing fleet outside the window is not a more obvious source.
‘People won’t eat local fish,’ she says, busying herself with the savoloys. But why? No reply. I sit at my table. The woman walks over to explain, in a confidential tone: ‘Are you sure you’re not from Greenpeace?’ I promise. ‘People think there’s something wrong with the fish because of all the polution. But this fish is all right because it’s from the North Sea.’ I eat on, reassured that my dinner is the product of the second most polluted sea in the world, and not from the Irish Sea, which is the most radioactive.
Outside, the steely taste which I had noticed earlier returns. I clear the car windscreen of a dusty film. Where the wipers stop, a line of black dust clings to the glass and the steely taste, which has a fishy smell, is perhaps explained. ‘Never mind what it’s like now. When they unload the ship, there’s this dust everywhere hanging over the town,’ says Dave, perching on a stool in the cosy bar of the Waverley Hotel.
‘And never mind the dust. I’ve seen blue fish come out of that sea. Nobody admits it of course. But I’ve seen them. Great blue things. Nobody admits it, of course.’ The fish and chip shop used to have a sign up saying East Coast fish sold here, he says. ‘Now everybody knows that’s all they’ll sell.’
The black phosphate dust lies in heaps around the harbour, and is harmless until it is processed despite its odorous presence in, around, and over the town. A ship from Morocco anchors out at sea once a month and barges ferry the phosphate to the port where it is loaded into lorries and taken up the steep hill to the Marchon chemical works which looks down on the town.
Marchon overshadows the rows of grey terraces which cling to the hill upon which it perches, belching out fumes, smoke, and waste from its detergent processing plant. 1,100 people work there, pumping out the daily dose of stomach-churning smells either into the air through its chimneys, or down the slope into the sea through a waste pipe where a frothy white slick laps the blackened rocks as it makes its way along the coast toward the bird sanctuary around the headland.
‘You could walk on the slick this morning,’ three retired miners conclude as they perch on their walking sticks. ‘Used to be able to get lobster and crab down there off the beach. Used to call that stretch Golden Sands. All that stuff has turned it black. That and the untreated sewage the water authority pumps into the sea. Comes back on to the beach at high tide, that sewage.’
Marchon is licensed by the North West Water Authority to pour 93 tonnes of uranium into the Irish Sea every year, as well as 27 tonnes of cadmium and 9.3 tonnes of arsenic. Tests carried out by Greenpeace show that the composition of radioactivity found in Whitehaven harbour precludes it being from Sellafield. For five years now, scientists have claimed that cadmium has been a cause of genetic damage. Large doses can destroy cell manufacture and repair.
One of my two guides, Derek Crawford, is an ex-Copeland borough councillor who worked at both Marchon and the region’s other main employer, British Nuclear Fuel’s Sellafield plant, before retiring early on health grounds. He waves to the video camera recording our slow progress along the chemical works’ perimeter fence. He drives his stick into the strangely smooth surface of the cliff top, which seems to break the natural, jagged shape of the coastline.
We walk back to his grey terraced house, which lies a few streets away from the chemical factory in the Woodhouse council estate. Radioactive samples have been discovered in gutter downpipes on the estate, and scientists concluded that the phosphate rock used in the manufacture of detergents contained uranium. Samples from the gutters had gamma radiation readings which were considerably higher than normal background radiation levels.
In April over 100 parents and schoolchildren suffered nausea and coughing when a cloud of sulphur dioxide acid leaked from the factory and descended on them as they were leaving nearby Kells infant school. In July, 200 cars in the factory carpark were pitted and stripped of paint after a second acid leak.
Eric Hughes joins us for tea. His house in Crummock Road two streets away is directly downwind of Marchon’s fluoride chimneys. A sufferer from ME, which some doctors claim may be caused by industrial pollution, Mr Hughes’s remaining energy is used to cultivate his garden. Every spring he turns the soil and plants new shrubs. And every summer the day arrives when he wakes up to see his plants burnt to a cinder.
‘You know that poem which talks about a host of golden daffodils, well mine were roasted. The plants turn brittle when the fluoride gets to them. There are never any flowers. I have tried planting apple trees, but they just wither.
‘Have you noticed there aren’t any trees on the estate? I planted a load of daffodil bulbs last year, but when they came up they were burnt by fluoride and died. A man from Marchon said the bulbs would be all right as they were underground. But there haven’t been any flowers since. All summer, plants were getting burnt. I can’t grow gladioli at all. Now my aluminium greenhouse is corroding and it’s only four years old.’
The chemical works, owned by the American comapny Albright and Wilson, has been expanding its operation at Whitehaven for the 50 years it has occupied the site. Now it stands like a dinosaur which looms over the town. Only relatively recently, local people have become determined to know more abour the effects the plant is having on their health. But employees are frightened to speak out for fear of losing their jobs in an area of high unemployment.
One former employee said he found that childhood asthma returned when he began working in the factory’s acid plant. He says the company never admitted that his work was the cause of his disease, but equally it did not insist he return to his job. The man, who still wishes to remain anonymous despite having left, interpreted this as a sign that the company knew it would be difficult to deny his work was the cause. But there are constant denials by the company when the plant if blamed for illhealth.
The medical profession has not been remarkably active in trying to identify the source of high asthma, foetal mortality, and genetic abnormality rates which have been found in and around the town. During the past five years rare syndromes have been found in babies born in Whitehaven and nearby Mirehouse. These diseases have led to either mental disorders, cleft palates, cysts, or facial abnormalities. There are also abnormal levels of severe spasticity, premature births, the transposition of body vessels, poor speech, and acute myloid leukaemia.
Dr John Platt, a consultant paediatrician at the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, says: ‘Doctors are more concerned about curing patients than identifying causes. Once we have the time to do that, we can start looking at the causes.’ Dr Platt, who was concerned as to whether I was recording our telephone conversation, said that it was necessary to establish whether the problems are caused by Marchon. He doubts that they are.
But another doctor’s exasperation has led him to become more public in his concerns. Dr Mike Acres a local GP, says: ‘Respiratory disease and asthma are the most widespread concerns, but there have also been cases of metabolic problems and genetic damage. There is also a high miscarriage rate during the first three months of pregnancy. I am convinced there is a link between the respiratory disease and Marchon.
‘I also suspect there’s a connection with the biological detergents and miscarriages, as the detergents break up the proteins which break up the gene strands during pregnancy. There’s also a possible link to leukaemia. As doctors, our role is prevention because we often can’t cure these things.
But the medical establishment is going about things the wrong way. Doctors have to become more involved as we have a moral obligation to our patients to try and improve things.’
Dr Jack Cunningham. Labour’s environment spokesman whose Copeland constituency includes Whitehaven, has been a paid policy adviser to Marchon’s owners, Albright and Wilson, since 1980. Among those who campaign for more information about the pollution, he enjoys little popularity.
The council’s regular meetings with the company to discuss pollution are not open to the public, and have scored few successes from the public’s point of view. Sheila Smith, who runs the family advice centre in nearby Monkwray, said: ‘It’s the accountability which in some ways concerns me more than the pollution. The thing we have found quite amazing is that Albright and Wilson is a totally closed organisation.
‘Trying to get the company involved in the community is impossible. You just meet with closed doors. As a result, there’s an awful feeling of apathy and despair. The health authority also turns a blind eye, even though this part of the town has the highest death rate from heart disease among women in the northern region, and is among the worst for general health.’
The company acknowledges that it does little to make people feel less alienated. A spokesman said: ‘I can well understand that point of view. There is some truth in it. We are looking into it.’
But on the pollution issue, local people can draw less comfort from his conclusion: ‘If we increase our environmental standards more than other countries, we will have a cleaner environment but we won’t be able to sell our products because other countries will sell their goods more cheaply.’